12/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Autism May Be Caused By "Chemical Exposures"

For years now, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and elsewhere have said that autism is probably a purely genetic disorder, and that the dramatic increase in numbers was due to better diagnostics, wider reporting and greater awareness -- and not because of any environmental factors.

Those days are over now.

Today, I received an email from an official in the Office of CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding (rumored to be on her way out in January), "Office of Enterprise Communication," replying to my questions on what the agency is doing to look into the reportedly high rate (1 in 28) of Somali children with autism in Minneapolis.

The responses I got from the CDC (and the Minnesota Department of Health) were thorough, thoughtful, and quite lengthy. They will be published in their entirety shortly at

But one of the last questions answered by the CDC really stuck out.

I cannot recall anything quite like it from any Federal agency when asked a question about the possible causes of autism.

Instead of the usual, tired, "it's just better diagnostics" mantra one routinely gets from most public health authorities (and prominent author-pediatricians), this particular person at the CDC chose to tell the refreshing truth -- and it is something that I have been saying for quite some time, myself.

Here is the question I posed to CDC:

If it is determined that Somali children in Minnesota do in fact have higher rates of autism than non-Somali children in Minnesota, and that they also have higher rates than Somali children in Somalia, will CDC officially concur that autism, at least in these cases, must necessarily have an environmental component?

And here is part of the reply:

While it is important to understand if autism is affecting any group of children disproportionately, it is also important to keep in mind that there are likely multiple causes of the autism spectrum of disorders. Most scientists agree that today's research will show that a person's genetic profile may make them more or less susceptible to ASDs as a result of any number of factors such as infections, the physical environment, chemical exposures, or psychosocial components.

The idea that "chemical exposures" (vaccine related or otherwise) might cause autism still brings virtual apoplexia to certain scientific circles. Let's hope they all take a deep breath and consider the CDC's wisdom.

Thank you, Centers for Disease Control.

Thank you for your candor, your courage, and your ability to admit that there is no such thing as a genetic epidemic.