By Dr. Joseph Perrone
May 30, 2015
What do Sean Penn and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. have in common? They’re both wealthy celebrities pushing new documentaries that make dangerous, unproven claims about the causes of autism.
The rate of autism diagnoses has indeed skyrocketed in the past 20 years from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 68. However, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out, a large (though not the only) factor in that dramatic jump is increased disease awareness and screening, including more in-school screenings and more medical professionals willing to label the condition.
You diagnose zero percent of the cases you don’t test for.
That explanation is of little comfort to the many parents of children diagnosed with autism. After all, it doesn’t explain why their child developed autism, just that it might not have been properly diagnosed in previous decades.
There are lots of researchers hard at work trying to figure out the cause of autism. Unfortunately, some activists are preying on parents’ search for answers by spouting theories about the rise in autism diagnoses that lack any concrete evidence and could have dangerous consequences.
Kennedy is pushing a new documentary, “Trace Amounts,” which repeats the widely discredited myth that childhood vaccinations contain mercury and that mercury-containing vaccines are the cause of autism. The film’s producers claim the film isn’t anti-vaccine—it’s anti-mercury in vaccines.
This sleight-of-hand is a solution in search of a problem. Thimerosal, the mercury-containing organic compound used as a preservative, has been phased out from all vaccinations given to children 6 and under with the exception of the flu vaccine.
Thimerosal was phased out as a precaution, but based on extensive research, the scientific community has rejected a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. The CDC alone has funded or conducted 9 studies since 2003 that found no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.
Yet no matter how many studies and statistics we scientists point to, vaccination rates are declining and incidences of vaccine-preventable illnesses, including measles and whooping cough, are on the rise.
It’s hard for facts and figures to overcome the powerful appeal of personal anecdotes, like those featured in “Trace Amounts” and in Sean Penn’s new documentary, “The Human Experiment.”
Penn’s film focuses on the idea that only a small fraction of the 83,000 chemicals currently used to make products in the U.S. have been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And because these chemicals haven’t been tested, we’re all part of a “human experiment” to determine whether they’re actually safe.
The film makes a good point—we need more rigorous and better testing of chemicals on the market. That’s precisely why a bipartisan group of senators, led by Senators David Vitter,(R-Louisiana and Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, are pushing legislation to finally reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 and update our federal chemical standards.
But Penn’s documentary focuses less on scientific research and more on the personal stories of individuals who believe (without medical evidence) that their health problems are a direct result of chemicals used in consumer products.
We’re told the stories of a woman with an autistic brother, a woman struggling with infertility, and a housecleaner who developed a skin condition and now pushes for non-toxic cleaning products, but we’re not given any proof that their problems are caused by chemicals.
The documentary correlates the increased use of chemicals with autism (noting similar statistics to the ones I cited earlier) and other health ailments such as cancer and birth defects. But the film is missing a crucial element—actual research and evidence proving that these chemicals caused health problems.
There’s no doubt that we need more effective regulation to oversee the use of chemicals in consumer products. But scaring consumers about what they’re putting into their bodies, without any evidence of harm, is needless fearmongering.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Sean Penn have a powerful platform to sway public opinion. It’d be nice to see them use their influence to encourage vaccinations or support better chemical laws than peddle junk science in film.
Dr. Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education.