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Ask the Doctor - Is There an Association between Mercury and Autism?
By Terry Grossman, MD,
Q Is there really an association between mercury and autism?
A The incidence of autism and other autistic spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder–Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) has been increasing exponentially—in Minnesota, for instance, the incidence has risen from 1 in 3,000 children in 1992 to 1 in 400 in 2002. The cause for this dramatic upsurge remains unclear, but exposure to environmental mercury is a primary suspect. Mercury is a well-known neurotoxin that, in even minute amounts, damages and destroys brain cells.
The environmental sources for mercury exposure include fish consumption (all the oceans of the world are contaminated with mercury), dental amalgam “silver” fillings (which are 55 percent mercury), and immunizations. The mercury in immunizations comes from thimerosal, a preservative, and until recent legislation removed it from most vaccines, children received as much as 237 mcg of mercury before 2 years of age through routine vaccinations. Numerous studies have also shown that babies are exposed to mercury in utero and through their mothers’ breast milk.
Boyd Haley, PhD, of the University of Kentucky has been actively researching the mercury-and-autism connection for many years and feels that the reason autistic children are adversely affected by mercury exposure while non-autistic children are not is that people with autism are unable to effectively excrete mercury from the body.
In support of his hypothesis, Haley presented an intriguing 2003 study in which the levels of mercury found in 94 hair samples from autistic babies were compared with 45 age- and gender-matched controls. The autistic children had higher prenatal and postnatal exposure to mercury, but Haley and his team found significant amounts of mercury in the hair of non-autistic children and much lower amounts in the autistic children. In fact, the more severe the autism, the less mercury he found excreted in the hair samples. The results may seem counterintuitive, but the researchers concluded that the lower levels of mercury in the hair suggest that autistic children have difficulty ridding their bodies (and brains) of this neurotoxin and that this plays a part in the neurobehavioral problems experienced by autistic children.
Various procedures can help autistic children excrete mercury. Some practitioners report that virtually all of their autism cases show improvement after oral chelation for heavy-metal removal. To learn more about mercury detoxification and to find a doctor who can assist you, visit the Autism Research Institute website, www.autism.org .
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