In doing research for the book, Olmsted and Blaxill investigated the backgrounds of the parents of some of the first children identified with autism by Leo Kanner in the 1930s. Olmsted, a reporter who has devoted his career to writing about autism, and Blaxill, a parent of a girl with autism, found links to mercury in the backgrounds of some of the parents of the children who were the original cases of autism.
Olmsted and Blaxill also state their belief that the rise in autism is related to the use of mercury in childhood vaccines. They point out that they are not anti-vaccine, but are pro-vaccine safety.
The co-authors also write about the damage that was done to patients who were given mercury as treatment for various medical ailments throughout the last few centuries.
They call for more research by the medical establishment into the environmental causes of autism.
Olmsted and Blaxill also edit and write for the web newspaper Age of Autism. An interview with the authors of the book, which goes on sale September 14, is below.
Mike Frandsen: In writing this book, you researched the backgrounds of the parents of the original children Leo Kanner identified with autism. What did you find?
Dan Olmsted: Just to set the stage a bit, Leo Kanner was a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University and in 1943 he wrote a paper called Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact. It was a case series describing 11 children and all of them had what he described as a uniquely and markedly different disorder, which became known as autism. We decided to go back and look at those cases very carefully and when we did, we found enough clues that we were able to identify seven of those 11 children.
As we looked more closely at their family background and where they lived, we saw what we thought was a pretty remarkable pattern of background exposure to a new commercial mercury compound called ethylmercury, which was used first in the 1930s in fungicides, agriculture and in vaccines as a preservative. So what we believe we see is a strong pattern, not proof, but a strong pattern that the age of autism really began when this kind of mercury reached commercial use and affected children.
Can you give an example?
Dan Olmsted: Case 2 was a child named Frederick W. We identified his family. His father had the same name, Frederick Wellman, who was a plant pathologist at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center near Washington working for the Agriculture Department. We found his archive, which is quite extensive, and the very first paper in the very first folder, in the very first box is about experimenting with mercury, which I think is quite significant.
Not only that but when we looked more deeply we were able to track the
fact that he was working with the new ethylmercury seed disinfectants at the
same time his son was born and we know that the dust from those can get onto
clothes and carried into houses and that sort of thing. The child was born
early because his mother had kidney problems, which is often a sign of
mercury toxicity and then it’s very stark, very vivid. There’s even a
pamphlet in his archive on the exact mercury fungicide that contains
ethylmercury, so we think this is more than chance and that it is something
that needs to be looked at seriously. If people want to disagree with it and
dismiss it, I think they’re going to have to engage with what we’ve found
You trace the medical establishment’s use of mercury to treat illnesses in the last several centuries. Why did doctors continue to use mercury even after they discovered it was toxic?
Dan Olmsted: I think one answer to that is that it seemed to work when nothing else really did. Mercury is a biologically active compound. If you have sores on your body, which you would get from syphilis, and you rub a mercury salve on it, the sores would clear up and seemingly that was a good thing. Unfortunately, the side effects were longer to show up and more obscure.
And what we see is a pattern where because it seemed to be useful to doctors in treating desperate patients, they would do it for a while and then when a better treatment came along they would quit using it and never look back and realize or acknowledge that they might have been killing people by the thousands even as they were treating them. It just kind of kept going, where we are still at a point where although we wouldn’t use arsenic or plutonium or lead or any toxic compound in medicine or as medicine, we still use mercury. And it has gotten a free pass for several hundred years and that we think really needs to stop.
Mercury was used to treat syphilis for hundreds of years. What happened to those patients?
Mark Blaxill: Mercury was used from the beginning of the syphilis epidemic in Europe from the late 15th century. Mercury was used as an ointment, a skin treatment, but over time, the idea was to try to get mercury closer to the infection or the site of the infection and not just on the skin. In the 1700s and 1800s people first started the practice of internal administration of mercury, specifically mercuric chloride, and doctors first began encouraging patients to drink it, and then not longer after, they started injecting mercuric chloride into syphilis patients.
Interestingly enough, when they started this internal administration approach to treating syphilis, a new, invariably fatal form of neurosyphilis, brain syphilis, began to emerge as well, something called general paralysis of the insane (GPI). These patients would go stock raving mad, wild and crazy with delusions and they would generally die quite quickly. These cases of GPI occurred in places where mercury treatments were common, and where the practice of treating patients with mercury chloride and mercury in general was not used, you would never see these cases of GPI.
If mercury is one of the causes of autism, and syphilis patients and children given teething powders were exposed to mercury, why didn’t they get autism?
Mark Blaxill: Syphilis patients were adults and so the exposure they had to mercury came much later in life. Autism is really a neurodevelopmental disease and it occurs in children very early in life. Once your brain is fully developed the exposure to mercury won’t have the same kind of effect.
In terms of teething powders, generally the exposures for children who were given teething powders were quite different. These were by and large not ethylmercury exposures, but calomel – inorganic mercury exposures. And they were generally given later in life when children were starting to cut their first teeth or later on. One of the main manufacturers of teething powders effectively marketed these products as being valuable from “teething til teens.”
The later timing and the different kinds of mercury exposure probably had something to do with the difference in the profile. That said, there were some known cases – some of the symptoms of acrodynia or pink disease were similar in some ways to autism symptoms so there were similar biological effects in the youngest of children. But I think the difference in the timing, the difference in the particular type of mercury was the difference. Calomel would be affecting the body of these children whereas ethylmercury will get into the brain and that’s probably the difference between teething powders and ethylmercury.
Some people treated with mercury were ok, while others developed terrible illnesses and died. Does that show that some people are more susceptible to mercury than others – that not everyone processes it the same?
Dan Olmsted: I think that’s true and a number of medical observers have said that along the way. The doctor who realized that pink disease, this terrible illness that children got that came from teething powders, the doctor who realized that that came from mercury poisoning said that it seemed to vary greatly. Some kids would get the same amount and have no effect and others would die from it.
We saw cases where these organic mercury compounds were used as seed
disinfectants and in the factory some workers got exposed and became
permanently disabled. Other workers who had the same amount of mercury
didn’t have any effects and so that’s an idea that has never really been
medically established, but we think the evidence for it is very strong.
You write that autism is largely environmental, and that other disabling diseases and disorders (schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, ALS, etc.) may have resulted from or increased as a result of pollution during the Industrial Revolution. This view that pollution, including mercury, other heavy metals, and chemicals are causes of autism, seems to be at odds with the traditional viewpoint that autism is mostly genetic. Why do you believe that autism is mostly manmade?
Dan Olmsted: We just think that the genetic paradigm or model of autism is collapsing by the day. It would require that the autism rate had been pretty much the same for the past 50,000 years and that just doesn’t hold up at all. It’s really an assertion that makes no sense.
What we see instead is that there are vulnerable children and those children are getting hit with environmental triggers at a critical moment in their development that is ultimately leading to probably a number of diseases and disorders, autism being the most visible and disturbing.
It just is no longer tenable to say that we don’t have an epidemic or it’s just something that has always been with us. As we looked back to the 1930s we realized that there really were no convincing widespread cases before that and so we think what we’ve got is an environmental epidemic on our hands.
Mark Blaxill: The thing that’s most striking about the genetic argument is that if autism has been with us forever and is truly genetic, and is present at the same rate, then in 1930, right before the children were born that Leo Kanner first observed as autistic, by 1930 there would have been roughly 100 billion human beings born in the history of mankind. If you apply the rate of autism to that population born before 1930 of 1 in 100, which is the number we’re seeing today in the U.S., that means there would have been one billion people with autism born before Kanner discovered it. Yet there is not even a trace of autism in literature, in comments, in medicine, in anything, and so this notion that there was this hidden horde of people with autism before Kanner discovered the disorder is just ludicrous on its face.
Kanner was the world’s leading expert in child psychiatry. He was the leader in the field at Johns Hopkins. In 1935, he wrote a textbook that was over 500 pages long that had detailed, exhaustive descriptions of every possible malady of childhood that he and his colleagues had ever seen. There’s not one mention of autism in that 1935 textbook.
When he wrote his paper, published in 1943, he said, “Since 1938 there have come to our attention a number of children whose condition differed so markedly and uniquely from anything seen before that each case merits – and I hope will receive – a detailed investigation of its fascinating peculiarities.” So here is the world’s leading expert on child psychiatry who has already written a textbook. In 1943 he writes that in the last five years, we’ve started to see children and they’re unlike any children we’ve ever seen before.
And he only saw 11 of them. And one of the things we’ve described is that people came from all over the country, all over the world to visit at Hopkins. The notion that autism was around at a rate of 1 in 100 or even a fraction of that is absurd. So the genetic argument at this point collapses on its face. It doesn’t even meet the basic tests of logic and common sense.
So why is there still such controversy about whether the rise in autism – one in 5,000 in 1975 to one in 110 today – is a real epidemic or whether it’s just the result of better diagnosing and an expansion of the diagnostic criteria? What have you learned in your research?
Dan Olmsted: I think they say that fundamentally because there’s a lot at stake here. If it really is increasing, it’s an environmental illness and there are a few likely candidates for that that would need to be ruled out much more strongly and certainly includes toxins like the mercury that has been used in vaccines since the early 1930s, and that tracks with the rise of autism. I think that there’s also a career imperative here where you’ve got thousands of people in what is virtually an autism industry giving grants that are more and more refined. And arcane analyses of more and more genetic anomalies that really have, as Mark has very powerfully shown, added up to a lot of noise. They don’t stack up to anything.
The Institute of Medicine said in 2004 that based on multiple studies, vaccines do not cause autism. The CDC and FDA say ethylmercury, the form of mercury in thimerosal, is safe in low doses. Yet the controversy continues. What reasons have you found in your research for the book to believe there is a link between vaccines and autism?
Mark Blaxill: The first thing we want to say is that we are often accused of something that’s not true, which is that we are anti-vaccine.
We are not anti-vaccine. We are for safe vaccination practices and responsible safety management of a well-designed vaccination program. One of the arguments in our book we make is that, for example, the rubella vaccine is a very important health measure that was a dramatic advance on some of the prior therapies used to treat congenital rubella, which actually included thimerosal-preserved products.
As to the vaccine question, I think it’s important to distinguish between the propaganda and the science. There is a propaganda line that is trotted out there to continue the promotion of the current childhood immunization policy regime.
That regime includes ongoing exposure to infants and fetuses with thimerosal through flu shots, so the government has decided that they want to maintain thimerosal in its products and so it includes an ongoing expansion in the number and frequency of immunizations. And the defense of that policy program requires a public relations position that says all of you who are citizens and consumers of these products, you shouldn’t be worried, that you have nothing to worry about. That propaganda position is fundamentally at odds with the science that we’re seeing, especially the most rigorous science that has been performed on animal models of exposure to these toxins and these products and the outcomes when you expose some animals to the vaccine and others are not exposed at all.
The animal model data is very compelling and very concerning in terms of safety or the risk that these exposures create biologically in infants. What we’re seeing is this conflict between truly a reckless policy environment and the promotion and preservation of it, and the real evidence that we’re seeing biologically in injured infants. That’s a problem, and it’s one where I think what we need to call for responsible leaders to say we have a problem here, we need to look at it openly, honestly and rigorously, and not approach this as if we’re defending a sacred cow, but really ask the question of what is in the best interests of children in the long run.
Dan Olmsted: I would just add as a reporter, I talked to a lot of people and as I started to research this and talked to parents and siblings and that sort of thing I heard many, many very vivid stories about children who received vaccinations, got very sick very quickly and virtually immediately regressed into autism. That’s anecdotal evidence, which is certainly not proof, but it is the beginning of a theory, and as Bernadine Healy, who used to head the National Institutes of Health said, we’ve never looked at those children. We’ve never taken 400 children, say, who quite clearly had a vaccine reaction of some sort and then developed autism, and I’ve just seen and heard too much to think that every single one of those parents is wrong.
Particularly, we had the last door just close in terms of vaccine court. There are more than 5,000 parents who went in and said we believe that our child developed autism after a vaccination. And so I guess we’re supposed to believe that every single one of those parents was just badly mistaken, motivated by greed, or deluded by lawyers who wanted to make money? I don’t buy it.
There is a belief that mercury was removed from all vaccines in
1999. Is thimerosal still in some vaccines?
Mark Blaxill: This is an important error that people often repeat. It was not taken out of childhood vaccines in 1999. There were some vaccines where a decision was made to phase out thimerosal content, but that phasing out took many years and while thimerosal was being phased out of some vaccines, it remained in others that were in that period targeted at infants and pregnant women. Particularly the flu shot and so there certainly was a shift in exposure to thimerosal.
Some vaccines that had contained it no longer contained it, but other
vaccines did, and in many respects those exposures simply substituted one
risk for another. So the suggestion that thimerosal was gone is an error and
part of the ongoing propaganda. It’s simply not true that thimerosal is gone
from childhood vaccines. It’s still there. The flu is a childhood vaccine
and it’s even more dangerous since the vaccine is targeted toward pregnant
women so the ethylmercury can reach the brain of a fetus and the developing
brain at a much earlier point.
Another aspect of the debate is about the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who authored a study in 1998 theorizing a potential link between the MMR vaccine and autism, was banned earlier this year from practicing in Britain. Was Wakefield made into a scapegoat?
Dan Olmsted: Yes. I think he was vilified and I think it’s very disappointing that the mainstream media keeps referring to him as “widely discredited.” He basically was set upon by the medical interests in Britain who were horrified by the implications of his early research on the MMR. And so they distorted it and made it appear to be fatally flawed by conflicts of interest and Andy Wakefield is still standing because so many parents have seen just what he described. The biological mechanism that he described makes perfect sense because we know that measles is a neurotoxic virus. Andy will be vindicated and I hope I’m around to see it. I hope he is too.
Mark Blaxill: I think it’s important to recognize that in the case of Andy Wakefield, no parent of children that he treated in the original cases ever complained. In fact, they received some of the best quality pediatric care in the world from some of the leading experts in pediatric gastrointestinology and many of their children improved after treatment for their gastrointestinal symptoms.
All the complaints against Wakefield came from the power structure in the U.K. The charges against him are unfounded, and in fact, it was so complicated it took them over two years to dull the public into a stupor over what actually he was charged with. He had all the ethical approvals he ever needed. That has been demonstrated by his defense very clearly and he has essentially been attacked because he continued to do research and continued to investigate these questions of vaccines and autism as a card carrying prestigious member of the academy.
It’s not just the Lancet paper. He published on gastrointestinal disease, autism, the MMR exposures, other issues, and I think in many respects not only was he being scapegoated, he was being punished for his heresy, effectively that he would go against the official line of the medical establishment and question things that powerful people believe should not have been questioned. So I think it’s important to recognize that Andy Wakefield was a courageous, principled scientist and he doesn’t deserve what happened to him.
Why do you think the government is reluctant to conduct studies comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated populations?
Dan Olmsted: I think the quick answer is if you don’t look you won’t find. Mark and I first began talking about this five or six years ago and my first question to him was, “What is the rate of autism in vaccinated versus never vaccinated kids?” And he said that study has never been done and I really didn’t believe him to tell you the truth. I thought some kind of research has shown what that is because it’s so controversial. But none has been done and I think that ought to make people suspicious right there because that’s not hard to do and the results would be pretty quickly determinative in terms of whether this is really a problem or not.
Mark Blaxill: This kind of science, vaccinated versus unvaccinated studies, is something the autism parents’ community has been calling for for years. And it is something that the NIH in particular has literally refused to sponsor. There was even an episode a couple of years ago where the NIH coordinating committee for autism actually had a vote and they voted in favor of funding this kind of research and then a few weeks later the committee turned around and staged another vote where they changed their mind and refused to fund science. That vote was about human populations.
Most of the animal studies of vaccinated versus unvaccinated infants have been done outside the U.S. in places like Poland, Peru, and Canada, and those studies are alarmingly consistent in what they find, which is that thimerosal in the amounts to which American infants were exposed and continue to be exposed to in terms of flu shots, thimerosal at those exposure levels is dangerous to infants in their development. So we continue to see evidence supporting concern. We continue to see reluctance on the part of particularly the western medical establishment to fund that kind of research and I think the answer as Dan says is pretty simple -- if you don’t seek you won’t find.
There have been a handful of cases in which the government has compensated parents whose children developed autism after being given vaccines, essentially conceding that vaccines triggered autism in those cases. Why doesn’t the public hear much about these cases? The only one to get national media attention was the Hannah Poling case.
Mark Blaxill: It’s my understanding, and I don’t know this for a fact, that when the government settles with families in compensation for vaccine injury they have some kind of publicity restriction in terms of publicizing their cases so the government essentially attempts to suppress any settlement that appears to link vaccines and autism, so the active goal of the vaccine court and the government vaccine injury program is to keep victims quiet.
Dan Olmsted: So they either compensate a family on some broad diagnostic categories like encephalopathy or seizures or they deny compensation when the word autism is attached to it. Clearly the Cedillo case, which was just denied on appeal from federal appeals court, was a classic case of everything we’re talking about here – a healthy child, MMR and other shots, an immediate illness, regression into autism, tremendous health problems, including seizures and bowel disease, and yet a flat denial that vaccines could be implicated in this. It’s sort of like a Dred Scott decision. It’s going to ultimately historically be seen as a real low point for the way we’re treating this situation.
Another controversy is that so many parents report GI symptoms in their children, yet the medical community cites studies that supposedly show that there is no higher incidence of GI problems in children with autism than in the general population. How could there be such a big difference in what the parents are reporting and what at least some scientists say doesn’t exist?
Dan Olmsted: Conflict of interest is one way to put it.
I think that whether deliberately or not, a lot of the science that purports
to show that there are no GI issues or food sensitivities is done by the
vaccine manufacturers or the public health establishment and I would say if
there’s one thing I absolutely believe to be true, it is that a huge
percentage of children with autism, and especially regressive autism, have
serious gastrointestinal issues along with a lot of other problems that
point to the nature of this, which is that it is a whole body environmental
Most of the book is about mercury, but phthalates, brominated flame retardants, and certain pesticides, for example, have been implicated in autism, and there are thousands of chemicals that haven’t been tested for safety. Do you think mercury is most of the problem or just part of the problem?
Mark Blaxill: We think that mercury is uniquely good at causing autism. We think it was there at the beginning. But we also believe that mercury was used in some of these applications - it was used not just as a preservative in vaccines, but also as a fungicide, as a pesticide, and it was used for those reasons - because it was good at killing things. Killing bacteria, killing fungus. When people figured out it was pretty stupid to use mercury for those purposes, that it was incredibly toxic, industry provided substitutes and in many respects those substitutes did the same sorts of things that mercury did on its own.
So we certainly don’t close out the possibility that similarly toxic chemicals can play a similar role in increasing the risk of autism. There have been studies that showed that organophosphates - pesticides - increase the risk of autism when measured in a certain way. We suspect mercury is really good at causing autism but it’s also quite possible that there are other chemicals involved. It’s hard to know exactly unless we start funding environmental research in a way that it ought to be funded.
It’s hard to answer the question of how many chemicals could be involved and how much more efficient mercury is than other chemicals in promoting these effects. These are things that we should be examining but we’re not doing that kind of work so it’s really hard to reach any definitive conclusions.
Dan Olmsted: Mercury is a giant clue to the history and nature of autism and even how to treat it. To ignore that just because it is an unpleasant reality for entrenched interests is a huge mistake and a huge disservice to those who have suffered from it and those who still will because we won’t deal with it.
You talk about the medical establishment’s acceptance of the ridiculous “refrigerator mother” theory, the idea that until 40 years ago, scientific experts thought that autism was the result of mothers who were too emotionally cold. There are other examples of the scientific establishment being wrong in the past – insisting there was no such thing as regressive autism, claiming children with autism could not get better, and saying autism was all genetic. Will we look back years from now at today and realize they were wrong about anything else?
Mark Blaxill: That’s our argument, that revolutionary science, science that throws out what is established by orthodox thinking, is dangerous to lots of people and powerful interests and when these revolutionary ideas emerge, they often arouse powerful opposition. That was true with Bruno Bettelheim and refrigerator mothers, which the New York Times wrote about in glowing terms, about what a wonderful and compassionate man Bettelheim was, so that theory was widely both disseminated and praised.
I think today we’re seeing the same kind of power from the orthodox autism side and we’re seeing the mainstream media line up behind them when the evidence is, to the dispassionate and disinterested observer, overwhelming in the other direction that it’s environmental. There are strong arguments that mercury is an important risk factor and that the numbers have exploded as those types of exposures have risen. I’m hopeful that when we look back on this, people will realize that the orthodoxy is wrong, as it so often is, and we’ll learn the lesson.
In the last 20 years or so, so many parents have been proactive
in looking for solutions. You mention the disdain that the medical community
often has for that “warrior parent” mentality and write that they have a
“shoot the messenger” type of mentality when parents are right. Do you see
that changing at all in the future?
Mark Blaxill: The medical industry in general has a great deal of difficulty with their consumers. And what we’re seeing here is a consumer movement of parents who are unhappy with the medical establishment’s response to the autism epidemic. They are unhappy with the options that they have for treating and caring for the future of their children, and they are unhappy with the official doctrine about what happened and why. So that’s a fundamental problem in the industry itself. One of the metaphors is the auto industry. Ralph Nader basically forced the auto industry kicking and screaming into making safer products and the auto industry changed.
Let’s hope the consumer movement here can drag the medical community into the 21st century into more responsible approaches towards safety management, towards environmental exposures in autism, towards better treatments for autism, and towards better safety management in products like vaccines. I’m not holding my breath. The medical industry is one of the most powerful industries in the world, and they are certainly resistant to change and they have more resources than the auto industry did against Ralph Nader. But we’ll have to see. That’s why we wrote the book.
You tracked down one person who was one of Kanner’s original cases of children with autism who is now doing well and had a recovery, right?
Dan Olmsted: That’s right. This is Donald T. who lives in Forest, Mississippi. I visited his brother several years ago and Mark and I both visited Donald a year ago and heard a remarkable story about how when he was 12 he was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which is interestingly enough an autoimmune condition, which we think characterizes lots of cases of autism as well. When he got this treatment for this life-threatening case of arthritis, the treatment was gold salts injected intravenously over several months, the arthritis cleared up and also, according to his brother, his autism symptoms, the worst ones – the anxiety and the social aloofness – also improved greatly.
He was able to go to college. He worked at a bank. He was president of
the Kiwanis Club. He travels the world. Now some people are going to say a
certain percentage of cases get better on their own but I would question
whether that can really apply to the very first case whose symptoms were so
vivid that they led to this original paper in the first place, so we think
that’s quite stark and was ignored and was attributed to this farm family
that he was sent to live with that was “nicer to him” than his parents. This
goes back to the “refrigerator parent” theory, so yes, we think that’s
So that may have been the first example of a biomedical treatment that worked.
Dan Olmsted: Exactly. The first case of autism and the first case of recovery.
What is the one message you would like people to take from the
Dan Olmsted: Mine is, I would challenge any medical professional who reads this book to think hard about whether they could vaccinate another child or pregnant woman with a mercury-containing vaccine. I think our evidence, not proof, but pattern of evidence is strong enough that I would really like to know how someone could continue to do that.
Mark Blaxill: I think we need to come to grips as a nation, as a body public with the reality of the autism epidemic, we need to look at it square in the face and we need to make the age of autism come to an end. And if we don’t, the future and the costs and the burdens and the tragedies of lost lives and futures is too much to contemplate. I think we need to make autism stop and it is within our power, but we have to look at the evidence and the data and the effects on families and children with clear eyes and without the burden of the autism industry and conflicts of interests constraining our view.
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