Why Is Autism on the Rise?

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202

2006 Second Web Paper

On Serendip

Why Is Autism on the Rise?

Brittany Peterson

I have been interested in the topic of autism since the first time I heard of it, but my interest became more personal when my younger cousin Ethan was diagnosed at the age of two. Since then, the whole family has become interested in the topic and we have all tried to familiarize ourselves with the causes and treatments so that we can give Ethan the tools he needs to live up to his full potential.

Autistic individuals usually display delays or permanent problems with social interaction, specifically interactions such as eye contact, emotional communication, and playful interaction and conversation. Individuals suffering from autism may also display repetitive language and behavior, while remaining unresponsive to other stimuli in their environments. They may be aggressive and may react badly to changes in their routines. (3)

Recently, there has been a lot of controversy regarding the possible causes of autism and the recent rise in autism diagnoses. It is my belief that the main cause of the recent sharp rise in autism cases is the presence of mercury in the environment, in tandem with certain genetic anomalies. Some of the mercury to which humans are exposed is present in fish or in emissions in the air. Recently, however, it has come to light that many vaccines given mainly to children contain mercury as well, and that the levels of mercury to which many children are routinely exposed through vaccination regimens greatly exceed safe levels. A wealth of evidence indicates that it is this form of exposure to mercury that has in large part caused the recent rise of autism.

Many vaccines contain a preservative called thimerosal, which is 49.6% mercury, which becomes ethylmercury in the human bloodstream. Ethylmercury then crosses the blood-brain barrier and causes neurological damage. (5) Mercury often has a stronger effect on children than on adults; the most common effects of mercury exposure in children include damage to the digestive and neurological systems, and to the kidneys. (10) Vaccines of this type have been used since the 1930s, (2) despite the fact that at least one major drug company, Eli Lilly, has known that vaccines containing thimerosal have harmful effects since the early 1940's. (4)

One vaccine that has in the past contained thimerosal is the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine given to small children. A study in Japan (Kawashima et. al.) examined the peripheral mononuclear cells of 3 autistic patients- there was evidence of measles virus in these cells, and that virus was found to be from a vaccine and not the disease itself. There was no evidence of the same virus in the peripheral mononuclear cells in non-autistic control patients. Furthermore, an American study (Wakefield et. al.) reported to Congress in April 2000 that 24 out of the 25 autistic children they studied had measles virus identified in the cells of their gut, while only 1 out of 15 of the control, non-autistic group of children had the same result. (7)

There are other autism-related figures that are even more striking. Some of the best data on autism cases comes from California; this state has kept excellent records with regard to autism cases and how the numbers have changed over time. Between 1987 and 1998, the number of autism cases rose by 273 percent. (6) In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the FDA and CDC began to investigate possible links between thimerosal containing vaccines and autism. Eventually, they began phasing in new rules requiring the removal of thimerosal from vaccines. (1) The number of new cases of autism reported has dropped by about 100 each year between 2002 and 2004, and the trend seems to have continued, although full data on that year is not yet available. (9)

It should be noted as well that since the United States exports vaccines to other countries, especially those in the Third World, the presence of thimerosal in our vaccines has had an effect around the world. Autism was practically unheard of in China before United States manufacturers sent thimerosal-containing vaccine there in 1999; now there are more then 1.8 million autistic individuals in that country. Enormous increases in diagnoses of autism have also been reported in countries such as Nicaragua, Argentina, and India since U.S.-manufactured vaccines containing thimerosal have been distributed there. (11)

Another case for a link between thimerosal in vaccines and an increase in autism comes from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the Amish community there, children rarely receive vaccinations. Statistically, there should be about 130 autistic children in this community given its size, but there are instead only four. Even more strikingly, all four of these children were exposed to mercury somehow. One child was exposed to a power plant, one was adopted from out of the community and so had been vaccinated normally, and the other two were born in the community but their parents had for some reason had them immunized normally. (11)

Why are drug companies so attached to using thimerosal? The answer is simple: to save themselves money. Using this preservative allows the companies to package their vaccines in larger vials that can be used for more than one dose- that is, it gives the vial enough protection against germs and aging that it can be opened and used multiple times. These larger vials are half as expensive as single-dose vials. (11)

Another interesting point to consider is that mercury poisoning and autism share many of the same symptoms. In a report to the FDA on autism in 2000, a group of parents, researchers and doctors led by Sallie Bernard made this point very strongly. "Defining characteristics of autism- social withdrawal, OCD behaviors, and loss of or impairment in language...[and] sensory disturbances" (7) are also present in cases of mercury poisoning. This report also stated that some biological problems associated with mercury poisoning are also associated with autism, such as problems with the immune system, cerebellum, amygdala, and hippocampus, and that mercury has been found to be more toxic to males than females. The male to female autistic ratio is extremely high, about four males for every one female. The FDA report went on to note that autism usually emerges in early childhood, a period throughout which many vaccines are administered. (7)

There is also evidence of a genetic component to the onset of autism and similar disorders. One of the functions of the MTHF-r gene is to affect the way the body disposes of toxic metals that are introduced into the bloodstream. A particular type of mutation at this gene, called A1298C, affects that function and so mercury and other metals build up in the systems of individuals with this mutation, meaning that they are even more likely than individuals without the mutation to suffer the harmful effects of overexposure to mercury. (8) This can cause autism and other, similar neurological disorders, and it has often been found that autistic people have a family history of similar problems. (7)

I was motivated to research and write on this topic for personal reasons, but I have found that in researching the topic, the analytical, scientific side of my brain played a role, putting the facts I gathered into a cohesive whole. Viewing all of this information together, from the standpoint of a biologist, a chemist, and finally a logical human being, I cannot honestly come to any conclusion except that the rise in autism of recent years is, most likely, very tightly linked to the presence of mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines. Thankfully, as I have stated, progress has already been made to remove this preservative from vaccines, and the results of this change have already been seen. However, there is a long way to go in eradicating this threat. I hope that in researching this topic I have furthered that goal.

Works Cited

1)"A Timeline of the Thimerosal Controversy", from Mother Jones. Outlines events surrounding the controversy, from the first warnings of trouble to restrictions placed on thimerosal by government agencies.

2)"Comparison of Blood and Brain Mercury Levels in Infant Monkeys Exposed to Methylmercury or Vaccines Containing Thimerosal", from Safe Minds.
Outlines a study comparing two types of mercury exposure in monkeys and exploring the particular effects of the type of mercury found in thimerosal.

3)"Defining Autism", from The Autism Society of America Discusses common symptoms of autism.

4)"Frist, Hastert Pull Last Minute Maneuver to Protect Vaccine Manufacturers From Liability", from Safe Minds. Discusses efforts by pharmaceutical companies and sympathetic politicians to protect themselves from this controversy.

5) "Health Effects of Mercury", from Mercury-Free Minnesota Health effects of mercury exposure.

6)"Is autism on the rise?" Inside Autism. Some statistics regarding the recent rise in autism and some discussion of the ways it is diagnosed.

7)"Measles virus isolated in autistic children". Autism Research Review International, published by the Autism Research Institute Summarizes report by the group led by Sallie Bernard, as well as studies done which found measles vaccine virus in autistic children.

8)"Program for Methylation Support", from the Neurological Research Institute. Information on genetic mutations affecting the processing of toxic metals such as mercury and some of the potential outcomes of having this mutation.

9)"State Shows Decline in Autism Diagnosis Rates, Possible Sign of Nationwide Drop", from California Healthline. Article discussing the recent drop in autism in California.

10)"ToxFAQs for Mercury", from the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Explains why and how mercury is toxic to humans.

11)"Deadly Immunity", from the Common Dreams News Center. On the harmful effects seen in areas where thimerosal-containing vaccines are administered as well as the reasons drug companies want to use thimerosal in the first place.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:10 CDT