07/07/2008 09:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Autism and This Election

I am a neuroscientist and I do research in autism. Autism is a neurological disorder in which a child is impaired in their ability to relate and communicate with others, characterized by the "autistic aloneness."

I am writing this blog because I want to share my perspective as an autism researcher on the importance of the upcoming presidential election. I want more Americans to know how critically important this election is to our children.

My recent research findings, as well as the findings from many other researchers, shows that mercury exposure is a part of the pathology in autism. For example, recent research by Dr. Palmer (and colleagues) of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio found that the closer a child lives to an industrial source of mercury, the more likely the child will be diagnosed with autism. This finding was consistent with two prior studies: one also by Palmer and colleagues that showed that as the rate of mercury release increases, so does the rate of autism; and two, a 2006 California environmental study that showed an association between autism and environmental exposures including mercury.

Recent brain studies have shown neurodegeneration in these children associated with oxidative stress; also finding the extent of the oxidative stress was related to the amount of mercury in the brain. My (and my colleagues') recent research shows that children with autism are more vulnerable to heavy metal toxicity. The Geiers and Nataf (and colleagues) found that children with autism have a higher mercury body burden than typically developing children.

One source of mercury is industry, particularly coal burning power plants. However, for the past seven years, the Bush administration has taken us backwards environmentally. For example, the Bush administration brought about new EPA rules that exempted power plants from the list of polluting sources subject to strict mercury controls, even though they contribute 41 percent of the annual total of mercury pollution in the US.

The Natural Resources Defense Council's website lists many of the environmental rollbacks since the Bush administration, such as making toxics reporting standards more lenient for industry.

Another source of mercury is thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) in some vaccines. Many states (e.g., Iowa, Illinois, California, Delaware, New York, and Missouri) have banned the use of thimerosal in vaccines; however, legislation signed into law by the Bush administration in 2005 allowed federal preemption of the use of thimerosal, such that thimerosal could be used in vaccines even if it is banned in the state. In addition, in 2007, Bush vetoed a bill that banned the use of childhood flu vaccines that contain thimerosal.

This election is gravely important to our children's future. Autism is now a global pandemic affecting 1 in every 150 children and the rates are increasing. We are at a critical juncture and our children cannot endure four more years of the Bush policies that protect industry and corporate interests despite what is best for our children.

We need a president who will not define public health and environmental policies according to business principles, but on the principles that rise above these and serve the general good. We need a change from the policies of the past eight years.

My hope is that Americans will consider this issue when voting in the fall.