So the question becomes, what's causing it? Increasingly, scientists are focusing on the role of mercury. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and some of the symptoms of autism and mercury poisoning are similar. Incredibly, pharmaceutical companies used mercury (in the form of thimerosal) as a preservative in vaccines and many parents have reported that their child's autism began after being given vaccine shots. (Even more mind-boggling, even though pharmaceutical companies have removed thimerosal from vaccines, they continue to put it in the common flu shot given to kids and pregnant women). But, scientists haven't been able to determine a direct one-to-one link between mercury in vaccines and autism. Now scientists are speculating that autism may be caused by a combination of environmental factors (largely mercury) and genetic factors that regulate how the body processes mercury:
[University of Kentucky biochemist Boyd] Haley has garnered evidence from hair samples that [shows] autistic children do not clear mercury from their bodies as efficiently as most kids do. They may have a genetic susceptibility that allows more mercury to accumulate in their tissues, he says.
Here's what else we know:
Coal fired power plants are the largest emitters of mercury in the United States, releasing about 48 tons, or 96,000 pounds, into the air each year... Because mercury is a neurotoxin, it is particularly dangerous to the still-forming brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. Some studies show that children who are exposed to tiny amounts of mercury in utero have slower reflexes, language deficits, and shortened attention spans. (Big Coal, p. 134)
The problem with mercury is that it is an element that does not break down. Rather, once released into the environment, mercury builds up over time -- in our soil, in fish, in our bodies.
As more and more mercury is released into the environment, it keeps building up. One way to think of coal plants is as giant mercury-excavating machines, taking tons of mercury and other heavy metals that had been safely sequestered underground and recycling them in the air and water. David Krabbenhoft, the leader of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Mercury Project, estimates that the deposition rate of mercury today is three to five times greater than in preindustrial times. (Big Coal, p. 136)
We may in fact, have simply reached the tipping point. As mercury has built up over time in our environment and in our bodies, we may have simply reached the point where mercury levels are now high enough to cause widespread developmental problems, including autism.
In 2004, scientists decided to study the connection between mercury emissions [from coal-fired power plants and other sources] and autism rates in the community. They compared data about autism and special education rates from the Texas Department of Education with pollution emission data available from the Environmental Protection Agency. They found that:
There was a significant increase in the rates of special education students and autism rates associated with increases in environmentally released mercury. On average, for each 1000 pounds of environmentally released mercury, there was a 43% increase in the rate of special education services and a 61% increase in the rate of autism.
Power companies tend to locate their coal-fired power plants in poor and minority communities. Given this data -- that every 1000 pound increase in mercury emissions causes a 61% increase in autism in the community -- you understand that not only are coal-fired power plants committing environmental racism they may, in fact, be committing a very profitable form of genocide.