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Mercury Rising

Posted by on Dec. 17, 2008 at 1:11 AM
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Mercury Rising

By Dan Olmsted

A Possible Link Between Chemical Exposure And Autism May Have Been Overlooked In The Very Earliest Cases At Johns Hopkins

In 1943, a child known only as Frederick W. became part of the first medical report of a strange new disorder. Frederick was Case 2 of 11 children whose behavior "differed markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far," wrote Dr. Leo Kanner, the psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University who introduced the syndrome to the world and named it "autism."

One of the children "spun with great pleasure everything he could seize upon to spin." Many of the children flapped their hands; flew into unpredictable bouts of rage and aggression; spoke in inexplicable ways if they spoke at all, sometimes referring to themselves as "you" and others as "I"; showed remarkable abilities like keen memory and perfect pitch but abject inability to perform simple tasks; obsessed over objects but ignored human beings.

Kanner didn't know why the children, all born in the 1930s, acted that way but noticed the parents were college-educated and career-oriented: lawyers, psychiatrists, scientists. He wrote, "In the whole group, there are very few really warm-hearted fathers and mothers," and later speculated, "emotionally refrigerated" parents might play a role in causing the baffling disorder.

"Most of the fathers are, in a sense, bigamists," Kanner wrote. "They are wedded to their jobs at least as much as they are married to their wives. The job, in fact, has priority."

Now, Frederick W.'s father has been identified by this reporter, who has written about autism for two years for United Press International, as a scientist named Frederick L. Wellman, and new information has been unearthed that suggests Wellman's career might indeed be a clue--though not the kind Kanner detected.

The Frederick L. Wellman Papers fill 18 boxes in the Special Collections Research Center at the North Carolina State University Libraries in Raleigh. The first item in the first folder in the first box is dated Spring 1922, when the senior Wellman was working toward his doctorate in plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. Faded with age, the report is titled "Hot Water and Mercuric Chloride Treatments of Some Brassica Seeds and Their Effect Both on the Germination of the Seeds and the Viability of the Fungus Phoma Lingam."

In layman's terms, Wellman collected cabbage seeds infected with a common fungus and dunked some of them in a solution of mercury salts and hot water. "The lots treated with mercuric [chloride] were shaken vigorously at first to get thorough contact with the solution," he wrote. His faculty adviser at the time was concerned about an epidemic of cabbage fungus that was wrecking havoc on Wisconsin farms, and he enlisted his student Wellman's help in researching solutions.

By the time his son was born 14 years later, in 1936, Wellman had graduated to advanced plant pathology work at the U.S. Agriculture Department's main research center in Beltsville, in Prince George's County, just outside Washington.

In a résumé, he wrote at length about his experience there with fungicides. On cabbage seeds, he reported, "organic mercury compounds were found to be most satisfactory disinfecting agents." For tomatoes, "proprietary organic mercury dusts also gave good results." All three of the fungicide sales brochures in his archive were for organic mercury compounds--two of them containing ethyl mercury, which was introduced in commercial products just a few years earlier.

Ethyl mercury is also the active ingredient in a vaccine preservative called thimerosal. A maverick minority of scientists and a larger percentage of parents blame thimerosal--which is 49.6 percent ethyl mercury by weight--for the rising autism rate, up tenfold in 20 years to one in 150 8-year-old U.S. children, according to a report this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some parents say they watched their children become physically ill and regress into autism soon after they got shots that contained the chemical--a link public-health officials call coincidence, not cause and effect.

It might be just another coincidence that the father of autism's Case 2 was working with new ethyl mercury compounds seven decades ago when his son was born. Or it might not.

Coincidence or otherwise, similar echoes emerge from cases 1 and 3 in Kanner's original study. Case 1 grew up in a town called Forest, Miss., surrounded by logging camps, lumber mills, and a national forest being planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Forest is 50 miles from the Mississippi sawmills where ethyl mercury fungicides were first tested in the United States in 1929 to preserve lumber, a practice that quickly became widespread; that child was born in 1933.

Case 3 was the son of "a professor of forestry in a southern university," Kanner wrote. That university has been identified as North Carolina State--the same school where Frederick L. Wellman ended his career as a visiting professor. Case 3's father began research on Southern pines when he joined the N.C. State faculty in 1935.

In 1936, he assisted in the planting of pine seedlings in the university's newly acquired Hofmann Forest. His son was born in 1937. Organic mercury fungicides, including an ethyl mercury brand, were often used to prevent "damping off" or fungal contamination of pine seedlings during that era.

An advocate of the mercury-autism hypothesis says the pattern in those early cases strengthens his concern.

"So now we have learned that Frederick Wellman handled ethyl mercury fungicides that were first introduced to the market in 1929 and that his child was Kanner's patient No. 2," says Mark Blaxill, whose daughter Michaela has autism. Blaxill is vice president of the advocacy organization SafeMinds, which argues increased mercury exposure is behind the soaring autism rate. "And we know that cases 1 and 3 grew up around the first application of ethyl mercury products. If that's not a smoking gun, I don't know what is," Blaxill continues.

Read therest of this feature at

by on Dec. 17, 2008 at 1:11 AM
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