Autism & Contaminated Drinking Water

This story wasn’t picked up by the mainstream media, so unless you follow right-wing U.S. blogs, you probably missed the news last month that U.S. Environment Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson has found the cause of autism.  It’s not genes, vaccines, or freezer mums – all this time it’s been hiding in plain sight in our contaminated drinking water.

Well, she didn’t quite say that, but it was pretty close.  Speaking before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the scope of the EPA’s powers under an Executive Order to limit certain toxic chemicals that have been found in the US water supply, Ms. Jackson referred to the risk of a child getting autism from contaminated drinking water as one side of a cost benefit analysis for protective policy.  Watch:

The right-wing blogosphere had a field day with this of course, but I wasn’t so much interested in political point scoring as Ms. Jackson’s claim about autism’s causes….so I sent her a brief email requesting the references. As a dual citizen, I felt justified in making the request – she is technically part of my government after all, though I choose to live and work abroad.  If there was indeed new evidence, I wanted to understand its implications.

Well today, five weeks later, the response finally came from the EPA:

Dear Mr. Davis:

Thank you for your e-mail dated February 3, 2011 inquiring into the existence of science that has established a link between autism and drinking water.

EPA’s programs are designed to make sure that the public’s health is protected from environmental toxins in the air we breathe, the water we drink and our land. Science is an always evolving field, and will always guide EPA’s actions. Developmental disorders, including autism, hit close to home for many Americans.

Over the past decade, we have seen the reported prevalence of such developmental disorders rise. While the science is not evolved enough to explain that increase, scientific data demonstrate a link between neurodevelopmental disorders and exposures to environmental contaminants through various media. Some emerging studies suggest a possible association between environmental exposures and autism, though we do not yet know enough about autism to identify any specific environmental contaminants that are responsible, through drinking water or other exposure pathways. EPA will base our actions on the latest science to ensure that we are on the forefront of protecting Americans from such threats.

Sincerely,

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water

If anyone can parse that very carefully worded last paragraph, I’m all ears.  What I read was a buttock-covering waffle. Which is a shame, because if there really were definitive evidence, it would be the first step in mitigating a disorder that affects so many families.  At this point, that doesn’t seem to be the case — making Ms. Jackson’s statement not only misleading, but also a textbook case of twisting science to support political objectives.

2 Responses to “Autism & Contaminated Drinking Water”

  1. Thomas Doubts says:

    A waffle of the first order Erik, flavourful and yet nauseating.

  2. Maki says:

    Hi Erik,
    Any updates to this? Like you’ve written, I have only seen this reported on right-wing sites and I’m curious if anything more became of it. Thanks!

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis