[Note:In May 2004 the
Institute of Medicine stated that no further research should
be done on the autism/mercury link. In the story below, IOM
panel member Steve Goodman appears to be backpedaling.]
Gene flaw may link autism, vaccine additive
By Bob Miller ~ Southeast Missourian
Monday, December 13, 2004
A study released today by an environmental organization
offers support to the theory that a vaccine preservative
called thimerosal may contribute to the cause of autism.
The study has found a genetic flaw that sheds further light
on how autistic children are metabolically different from
healthy children. This may explain why autistic children may
not be able to excrete mercury and other heavy metals.
Because of this finding, some doctors also believe that a
relatively simple mixture of nutritional supplements may
provide a dramatic treatment for autistic children.
The new 18-month autism investigation was conducted by Dr.
Jill James, a former Food and Drug Administration research
scientist who now works at the University of Arkansas for
Her report claims that autistic children have a severe
deficiency in glutathione, which James said is the body's
most important detoxifier.
The Environmental Working Group, a not-for-profit
organization that investigates toxicity in the environment,
is using James' study as a way to petition for further
Many parents and several researchers have speculated that
thimerosal, which is 50 percent mercury by weight, is the
culprit behind the exponential increase in autism cases over
the last decade. Ten years ago, the American Academy of
Pediatrics estimated an autism rate of one in 2,500 in the
United States. Today, the rate is estimated as high as one
in 166. As many as one in six children have neurological
disorders. Many believe the rise in autism and the
corresponding increase in the nation's vaccine schedule are
Pharmaceutical companies removed thimerosal from required
vaccines in 2002, but it still exists in most of the
recommended influenza shots.
Autism theorists have for several years hypothesized that
certain children are susceptible to heavy-metal toxicity,
which poisons the brain.
The reports shows that autistic children have 133 percent
more "inactive" glutathione in their bodies than healthy
children and 68 percent less "active" glutathione.
The report also gives parents hope. Preliminary results have
shown that certain supplements -- folinic acid and methyl
B12 -- can bring glutathione back to normal levels.
Dr. Elizabeth Mumper, the CEO for Advocates for Children and
associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the University
of Virginia Medical School, said she has seen dramatic
improvements in some autistic children who have been taking
"I don't mean to imply that we can cure autism," she said.
"But in this subset, some have moved out of the [autism]
spectrum and gone to kindergarten without aid."
She said the metabolic makeup of autistic adults will have
to be studied, but she sees no reason why the nutritional
aids won't help autistic adults as well.
'Closer and closer'
News of such a breakthrough is exciting for Dena Petzoldt of
Fruitland, whose son, Ben, is autistic. Tests have shown
that Ben has high levels of heavy metals, including mercury,
in his blood. The family has traveled to many states to try
"We're just getting closer and closer," she said. "There
have to be answers out there because there are so many
autistic kids out there. I'll definitely check into this."
James studied the metabolism of 20 autistic children. In a
conference call with reporters, she explained she started
with 10 plasma samples from autistic children.
The results were "very, very striking," she said. They were
so consistently abnormal that she added 10 more samples to
her study, just to make sure they were accurate. They came
back the same.
Autism is generally regarded as a genetic and environmental
mixed bag. James said the genetic causes are complex. There
could be 10 genes that contribute to autism.
The new finding makes sense for a number of reasons, she
Glutathione levels are naturally lower in males, which could
help explain why 70 percent of autistic children are boys.
Estrogen, found more predominantly in females, is an
antioxidant like glutathione, so girls have more chemical
weapons to fight against metal toxins.
The glutathione discovery may also explain why so many
autistic children have intestinal disorders.
Glutathione, according to the study, is vital to proper
functioning of the intestines.
The Environmental Working Group is waving James' study in
the face of the Institute of Medicine.
In May, the IOM -- an independent scientific group
commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention to delve into the thimerosal issue -- released a
report which said there is no evidence suggesting a link
between the preservative and autism. It based its findings
on five epidemiology studies, including one from Denmark,
which has a different vaccine schedule and thus different
thimerosal exposure than the United States.
Epidemiology is a mathematical approach to science based on
complicated statistics derived from medical databases.
The IOM heard but did not accept the biological evidence,
which was only theoretical, the committee said. The IOM also
suggested that "further research to find the cause of autism
should be directed toward other lines of inquiry."
Dr. David Weldon, a congressman from Florida, has been the
leading government anti-thimerosal spokesman.
"The work of Dr. James and other have continued with private
support," Weldon said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the
National Institutes of Health has not yet dedicated funding
to better understand and develop interventions for the
epidemic of children suffering from neurological development
disorders, particularly those that have resulted from
mercury exposures from childhood vaccines.
"Today's study, along with several other recently published
scientific studies, demonstrate clearly that the IOM
overstated their conclusions."
'Didn't dismiss anything'
Dr. Steve Goodman of Johns Hopkins University School of
Medicine in Baltimore sat on the IOM committee that reviewed
He told the Southeast Missourian he couldn't speak for the
IOM because the committee no longer exists, but he said
there was a general feeling that thimerosal would be
unlikely to turn out to be the cause of autism. However, he
said some of the IOM's statements were misconstrued at the
"First of all, we didn't dismiss anything," he said. "We
simply stated the epidemiology evidence favored no
relationship, which is true. At this point there is no
increased risk to the general population.
"What we did say is if you've got a fixed pot, don't spend
huge amounts more on epidemiology. What we said was that
resources would be better spent on understanding the
For several years a certain segment of the scientific
community has suspected that autistic children have a
genetic susceptibility to mercury and that thimerosal could
be the environmental trigger to autism. So why base a
national report on five studies that don't address the
"That's what we're saying," Goodman said.
He said unless the genetic flaws can be identified and a
test group can be formed with the same flaws, there is no
use for more epidemiology, which suggests no danger to the
The anti-thimerosal groups have been making that same
argument since May when the IOM report was released.
The IOM did admit in its report that "the committee cannot
rule out, based on the epidemiological evidence, the
possibility that vaccines contribute to autism in some small
subset or very unusual circumstance."
Regardless, major television networks only reported the news
of no link, followed by quotes from board members saying
funding should be spent elsewhere. Many physicians at the
time considered the thimerosal issue a closed book. And,
according to a U.S. congressional source speaking on the
condition of anonymity, perhaps the National Institutes of
Health did too.
The National Institutes of Health has cited the IOM report
when it has denied funding for biological research, the
Shortly after the IOM report came out, Columbia University
researcher Dr. Mady Hornig published a study showing that
mice with genetically susceptible immune systems displayed
autistic-like behaviors when given thimerosal.
While the Environmental Working Group acknowledges that
James' research doesn't prove a link, the organization says
the findings should force the government to pick up the
issue again. The epidemiology studies the IOM based its
report on assumed that the children had equal toxin-fighting
capabilities, the EWG says.
Goodman didn't want to comment specifically on the new study
until he reads it.
"This type of study could fit in a much bigger picture and
enhance the understanding of autism and the immune system,"
he said. "It's a small piece of fabric of a theory which may
or may not turn out to be true. But it doesn't mean that
thimerosal causes autism. There are lots of fragments,
pieces of biological evidence and theories. But those
theories are still incomplete."
For Embargoed Release: 12:01 AM EST, December 13, 2004
CONTACTS: Lauren Sucher, Liz Moore, EWG: 202-667-6982
New Evidence Suggests Link Between Mercury Exposures And
Scientists Identify Trait in Autistic Children That Makes
Them More Susceptible To Harm From Toxic Metals
Washington, D.C., Dec. 13 -- A year-long review by
Environmental Working Group (EWG) finds that a
ear-universal trait in autistic children suggests a possible
link between autism and children's exposure to mercury.
EWG's review corresponds with the publication of a new study
by Dr. Jill James of the University of Arkansas for Medical
Sciences. James served for fourteen years as a senior
research scientist with the Food and Drug Administration and
is currently Professor of Pediatrics at the University of
Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
In a paper published this week in the American Journal of
Clinical Nutrition, James and her colleagues identified a
signature metabolic profile in autistic children that
strongly suggests that these children are more susceptible
to the harmful effects of mercury and other toxic chemicals.
The EWG study finds that autistic children have a common
weakened ability to protect themselves from the effects of
small amounts of toxic metals in their bodies. This trait
appears as a severe deficit of active glutathione in
autistic children when compared to healthy children.
Glutathione is a potent antioxidant that is the body's most
important tool for detoxifying and excreting toxic metals.
While a review published earlier this year by the National
Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine concluded that
available science showed no mercury-autism link, it left
open the possibility that vaccines preserved with mercury
might trigger autism in a small subset of susceptible
children. The new study by James and her colleagues examines
precisely the issue of susceptibility in a small
The findings raise serious concerns about autistic
children's overall exposure to environmental contaminants.
Mercury is of particular significance because of its proven
toxicity to the developing brain and nervous system, and its
documented high exposures from a variety of sources such as
canned tuna, dental fillings and vaccines preserved with
This study significantly strengthens the possibility that
mercury is linked to autism and other neurodevelopmental
disorders. It also points to a subgroup within the
population that may be vulnerable to a number of
"The autism epidemic is alerting us to the importance of
individual susceptibility to environmental pollutants," said
Richard Wiles, senior vice president of EWG. "Environmental
safeguards that protect a theoretical 'average' person still
leave thousands at risk. Increased understanding of
susceptibility will provide the basis for stronger health
policies that truly protect the most vulnerable."
# # #
1: Environmental Triggers & New Clues
2: Oxygen Radicals & Autism
3: Environmental Chemicals & Autism
4: New Evidence in Mercury-Autism Link