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MercolaWatch:On Environmental Factors for Autism -- Part 1

by Josh DeWald

April 12, 2013

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Donate In a recent article by Joe Mercola, he has a list of what he deems to be likely environmental factors for autism (spoiler: he mentions vaccines). Let's take a look at some of them. NOTE: I have no intent to cover the 1/50 rate of autism, that has been discussed elsewhere in much better depth.

Let's get going.

Genetics vs Environment

Mercola sets things up:
Some have even gone so far as to say that genetics account for 90 percent of a child's risk for autism. However, research from Stanford University using identical twins suggested otherwise.(
Welcome to the world of science, Dr. Mercola! The best evidence at the time says one thing, and then more research is done and theories are adjusted based on evidence. In what is a rather rare occasion, Mercola has cited a legitimate article. Nowhere do the authors suggest any of the factors that follow in Mercola's article. Having seen this article discussed previously, it does seem to offer support for a bigger environmental factor, and less genetic, than had previously been theorized. Seems to be an area of exciting research. I am hoping some commenters have more information on that aspect.

One of its funding sources is Autism Speaks, presumably part of its environmental impact initiative. As best I can tell, Autism Speaks does not subscribe to any of the theories proposed by Joe Mercola either. I only bring them up because the pseudoscience/alt-med crowd claims that funding source = paid-for conclusion. I happen to disagree, but if they are consistent, they would actually have to ignore this study.

A useful quote from the blog of Autism Speaks discussing:
It’s important to remember that “environmental” influences such as these don’t cause autism by themselves. Rather, if a child has a genetic predisposition for developing autism, these influences may further increase the risk.
His proposed Factors

Vitamin D

Vitamin D Deficiency: ... There is also a link between rampant vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women and the proportionate jump in autism, which has been highlighted by Dr. John Cannell.
I followed the link to Dr. John Cannell of "The Vitamin D Council" and on the "evidence" page the citations are to two "studies" by Cannell, one "published" in the "Vitamin D Newsletter" and the other in Medical Hypothesis. David Gorskihaspointed out that that particular journal isn't exactly selective, particularly wanting to publish controversial ideas without peer review.

Perhaps this is a valid hypothesis, but Mercola will need to find an actual peer-reviewed source for the hypothesis of a link between Vitamin D deficiency and autism rather than printing pure speculation and calling it "science".

Electromagnetic Radiation

Electromagnetic fields: Work by Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt suggests there are distinct correlations between a woman's exposure to electromagnetic fields during pregnancy and her child's neurological functioning. He found that if you sleep in strong electromagnetic fields during pregnancy, your child will likely begin to exhibit neurological abnormalities within the first two years of life, such as neurological dysfunction, hyperactivity, and learning disorders.
Klinghardt is not quite as indirect. In the video displayed by Mercola, Klinghardt literally uses the phrase "I can predict autism", saying that children will develop autism from the electromagnetic fields. This is immediately after he admitted it was a "small" study that he "couldn't" get published. I stopped watching at that point. I spent some time trying to track down the actual supposed study, but only found a reference to a "pilot study" of 8 children with autism. The link to a Powerpoint presentation (how academic!) with more details was broken. Nor could I find any sort of site for the "Institute of Neurobiology in Seattle"that he is mentioned as representing.

According to the 2009 article Mercola links to, "Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt is well known for his successful treatment of neurological illness, chronic pain, and autistic children with Integrative Medicine. Here he explains how electromagnetic fields (EMF) interfere not only with your biology, but with that of your unborn child as well, and how it contributes to the creation of autism."

According to the bio on Kinghardt's site (found after some Googling, the actual link from the 2009 article was broken):
Increasingly aware of the limitations of conventional medicine when dealing with chronic conditions, he trained in Ericksonian hypnotherapy and began to include body-oriented psychotherapeutic and counselling approaches in his work, along with neural therapy, mesotherapy injection techniques and applied psychoneurobiology (psychokinesiology and mental field therapy).
I believe that's called "word soup". In any case, there appears to be no actual published research done by Dr. Klinghardt. An inaccessible Powerpoint deck doesn't quite cut it.

But Mercola has more on this particular electromagnetic radiation line:
In 2007, this theory received additional support from a study published in the Journal of the Australasian College of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine.
The authors of the linked study are both from the Safe Wireless Initiative ("Minimize Your EMR Exposure"), and one seems to be the head of Internal Balance Inc ("Detoxification & Wellness Solutions"). The second author is the founder of the Science and Public Policy Institute, which is a tame name for what appears to be a climate change denial group. He even has his own page on! So again going back to the mantra of the alt-med crowd that we should not trust studies that are backed/performed by special interests... this is about the epitome of that.

The stated objective of the study:
This study was conducted to assess mechanistically the role of wireless device-associated EMR in the etiology and treatment of Autism. Specifically, the relationship between molecular weight-specific heavy metal clearance in children receiving detoxification intervention including energetic nutrition for Autism and the length of time the children were treated in an electro-magnetic radiation (EMR) free environment was evaluated.
So a little one-two punch of "heavy metal" detox and EM paranoia.

In their introduction:
Heavy metal toxicity has emerged as a primary etiologic focus, with most emphasis on mercury exposure derivative of vaccines, dental amalgams and environmental load from ingestion of contaminated seafood.
Has it now?

There appeared to be no control whatsoever, but just analysis of patients in their "EMR-free clinic". As part of their attempts to make it EMR-free they state that (emphasis mine): "Applications of body worn sympathetic resonance technology[read:those nonsense "frequency" bracelets], energy resonance technology and molecular resonance effect technology were introduced as appropriate." Wow.

This "study" is comically outside the norms of research into autism. In fact, it's not clear at all from the study what it has to do with autism. The only descriptions are about "clearing" heavy metals.

Mercury (from vaccines and dental amalgams)

Finally Mercola moves onto mercury:
Mercury toxicity: [general stuff about mercury toxicity]... the use of thimerosal-containing vaccines (still used in annual flu shots) and dental amalgams " both of which contain mercury " also cannot be overlooked as major sources of individual exposure to this neurotoxin.
I have to admit to some surprise that he continued to link thimerosal in vaccines to autism. As much as he is fond of citing poor research, I actually thought this particular bit of misinformation was so well disproved that nobody was still sticking with it. If I recall correctly, even the folks at Age of Autism have moved on to generic "toxins" as their explanation for a link between vaccines and autism.

You would think everyone would have been satisfied when the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines had no effect on autism incidence. But science is not quite that informal, and a full review was done by the Institute of Medicine ("the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism").

Mercola opts to not even attempt to cite any research (fringe or not) to support his link between the mercury in dental amalgams and autism (which presumably children under 2 are never exposed to). There is a Skeptoid episode on dental amalgams. I also took a look at them in a blog entry responding to another Mercola article.


There is evidence of some sort of environmental factor in autism, as genetics may account for "only" 40%, but as far as I know science hasn't figure out what those factors are (no doubt there are many, just as autism itself is part of a spectrum). But the specific factors that Mercola highlights are unsupported by the evidence he brings to bear (whether or not they may turn out to valid hypotheses is a completely different matter). In part 2, I will take a look at Mercola's mentions of vaccines, pthalates and "the gut".


Hallmayer, Joachim, Sue Cleveland, Andrea Torres, Jennifer Phillips, Brianne Cohen, Tiffany Torigoe, Janet Miller et al. "Genetic heritability and shared environmental factors among twin pairs with autism." Archives of General Psychiatry 68, no. 11 (2011): 1095.
Halladay, Alycia. "If environmental factors can lead to autism, why does only one of my twin boys have autism?". Autism Speaks blog. Published 10/21/2011. Visited April 2013.
Immunization Safety Review Committee. "Immunization safety review: vaccines and autism." Washington, DC, USA: Institute of Medicine, Natl Acad Sei (2004).

by Josh DeWald

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