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Seeking Answers a la Erin Brockovich:
The TALE OF BRICK TOWNSHIP, NEW JERSEY

Date First Published: October 15, 2007

Do you remember the film, Erin Brockovich? 1   Based on a true story, it describes how a power company was quietly buying up land it knew had been contaminated by illegal toxic waste it had dumped for years. That waste had entered the local groundwater, and residents of the adjacent town were suffering a host of dreadful cancers. The heroine of the film put two and two together, eventually helping to prove that there was a direct connection between the toxic waste and the cluster of illness, winning a substantial financial settlement for the afflicted residents, as well as an order for the company to clean up the waste and stop using the deadly chemical. 2

This was a case in which, upon investigation, there was a definite link: the chemical from the plant entered the groundwater and the townspeople got sick. Might we ever find such a clear connection in autism?

In the late 90s, a group of parents thought we might. They suspected there was an autism cluster -- that is, a higher-than-usual number of people with autism -- in Brick Township, New Jersey. Together with their Senator and Representative, the parents contacted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, hoping that investigators would be able to identify something responsible for the higher rate of ASD. An investigation was launched, assessing the possibility of hazardous chemical exposure in the environment from three areas: the municipal drinking water supply, the nearby river (where people often swam), and the Brick Township landfill. Unfortunately, an extensive search for environmental culprits yielded no clear answers. 3

(It is interesting to note that the CDC's recent count of ASD cases -- the same one that gave us the new rate of 1 in 150 -- found a higher rate of ASDs in New Jersey than in any other state studied.  4   We still do not know why.)

As we consider environmental aspects of autism, it is evident that we have still had no breakthrough, no moment when the dots were at last all connected. It may be that there is no one environmental factor at play, that autism is simply incredibly complex, with a variety of causes leading to similar behaviors. Or it may be that we simply have not yet stumbled upon that one factor -- that chemical, drug, radiation, food additive, pollutant or other exposure-- that will bring the ASD environmental picture into sharp focus.

One thing is certain: scientists are now including the possibility of environmental factors in their thinking and their projects.

For an example, take a look at the U.C. Davis M.I.N.D. Institute's Autism Phenome Project.  Along with Brain Structure and Function, Genetics, and Immunology, they are studying Environmental Exposures.

For examples of some recent environmental studies and guidelines on how to evaluate them, read Hazardous Pollutants and Chemicals.  (Coming Soon!)

References

  1. Jersey Films. (2000). Erin Brokovich. Director, Steven Soderbergh.
  2. Bos, C.D. Erin Brokovich: Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric. Same article retrieved from Law Buzz: Famous Trials website on June 7, 2007 and Click2Flicks website on October 12, 2007.  
  3.  Superfund Site Assessment Branch, Division of Health Assessment and Consultation, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (CDC). (2000). Public Health Assessment: Brick Township Investigation.
  4. CDC. (2007). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders: Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 14 sites, United States, 2002. In: Surveillance Summaries, February 9, 2007. MMWR, 56 (SS01), 12-28.  
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