I Don’t See A Lot Of Buzz About This


I’ve never understood anti-vaxxers, except as a phenomenon driven by ignorance and fear; I’ve always been content to stand back and assume, “it’s something we don’t understand, yet, let’s let science crunch away at it.”

Granted, I don’t have any emotional stake in the issue, so it’s easy for me to advocate taking a “wait and see” attitude. I have two friends who have children on the autism spectrum. One of them blocked me on facebook back in the day, when I told her that Andrew Wakefield was a charlatan. The other has been raising her child and they’re both quite happy together and they’re both learning a lot; she sounds like she’s a great mom, I think her child is lucky.

google keywords

google search interest in “Andrew Wakefield” and Kristen Lyall [google explore]

It seems that science has been crunching away. Researchers from Harvard were looking into whether there was a relationship between ovulation-inducing drugs and ASD [Harvard] and it appears there is some linkage. There also appears to be a linkage between the age of the parent (particularly the male), which might actually support the Harvard study (or the other way around). Meanwhile, I learned about Kristen Lyall, et al’s study on organophosphate insecticides and PCB (Polychlorinated biphenyls) exposure. The Lyall study seems pretty credible. [pdf at NIH] The conclusion is pretty strong:

Conclusions:
Our results suggest higher levels of some organochlorine compounds during
pregnancy are associated with ASD and ID.
injector

Atropine autoinjector: a leg full of “nope”

That sure makes a whole lot more sense than the vaccination theory: most organophosphate insecticides work by destroying the nerves of the insect – that’s why when you spray bugs, they twitch a lot; it’s their little nervous systems being demolished by overdosing on acetylcholine left in their synapses once the acetylcholinesterase that is supposed to remove it is unable to work.

“Neurotoxin” and “fetus” are two words that you do not want to put together in the same sentence.

Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors scare the shit out of me, and should scare the shit out of you, too: it’s what Sarin does; it’s how Sarin works. And I remember (I had finished a semester of neuroanatomy in college exactly one month before) listening to a U.S. Army instructor lecture on chemical weapons and how we were expected to shove a great big self-dispensing load of Atropine into our own leg, if the guys around us started foaming and twitching. I remember thinking the whole thing seemed really sketchy. We had two injectors: “try one and if that doesn’t work, try the other.” Dosage? Uh, can I have some morphine, too, so when I die I’m smiling?

Chlordane, a branded mix of organophosphate insecticides, was taken off the market back in 1988 because it appeared to be carcinogenic and had a bad habit of building up and lingering in fatty tissue. [Thimerosol was discontinued in 1992] Unfortunately, chlordane lingers a long time, and a great deal of it was used as termite poison – there are houses pumped full of the stuff, and it’s there to stay. Unlike Thimerosol, there’s a good chance some kids, lots of kids, are being exposed to various organophosphates all the time, still. And, if you want a perfect bad guy: it’s a fine product of the great American company Monsanto.

Spraying Malathion for Zika, in New York City

Spraying Malathion for Zika, in New York City

My first in-laws, back in the 1980s, had a large supply of Chlordane laid in, when it was removed from the market. “Because that stuff really works.” Arrgh! I know people who laid in supplies of trichloroethylene, too, because “it works great!” and wow, it sure could dissolve stuff. Including brains. Anyhow, if you’re knocking around an old farm barn and you go back in the weedkiller and bug spray collection, you may find the stuff, still. It’ll be toxic for at least another couple decades; make sure you wear a breath mask and gloves and triple bag it if you’re getting rid of it. And, oh, I have no idea how you get rid of it safely. This isn’t just pointing at Chlordane, of course – there’s a whole family of organophosphate insecticides of which Chlordane was just one formulation. Malathion [wikipedia] is another organophosphate: you know, the stuff they sprayed all over the place to kill mosquitoes to cut back on the Zika virus? That’s Malathion. Sometimes they use another organophosphate branded as Naled [wikipedia]. Chlorpyrifos is another organophosphate that was banned until the Trump Administration’s EPA lifted the ban, presumably in order to make America great again. [src]

Typical reporting of Malathion spraying reads something like this: [san diego tribune]

It was the second time such treatment happened in this region; the first took place in mid-August in the nearby community of South Park. Similar operations have unfolded in neighborhoods across the nation as public-health departments fight to keep mosquitoes from becoming infected with Zika and then transmitting it to people, particularly pregnant women because the virus can cause neurological defects in newborns.

Pregnant women worried about Zika totally makes sense. Spraying where they live with organophosphate neurotoxins that cross the placental barrier may not be a great idea.

Lyall’s paper is very cautious; there’s plenty of good sciency explanation of method and prior work.

Although both PCBs and OCPs have known adverse effects on neurodevelopment (Korrick and Sagiv 2008; Ribas-Fitó et al. 2001; Rosas and Eskenazi 2008), only a few studies have examined prenatal exposure in association with risk of ASD specifically. A nonsignificant association for total prenatal PCB exposure was suggested in one small pilot study (Cheslack-Postava et al. 2013), while conflicting findings were reported for gestational exposure to PCBs and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals in association with autistic behaviors in another small study (Braun et al. 2014). A few additional studies have more indirectly suggested associations between ASD and exposure to these chemicals, as estimated by parental occupations, proximity to agricultural organochlorine pesticide use, or postnatal exposures (Felicetti 1981; Roberts et al. 2007; Rossignol et al. 2014; Windham et al. 2013). A number of investigations have examined OC exposure in association with a range of cognitive and developmental outcome measures, as reviewed elsewhere (Jurewicz et al. 2013), though work examining the diagnosis of ID (intellectual disability without autism) is limited. Thus, sufficiently powered studies examining ASD and ID risk in association with OCC exposure using biosamples collected during developmentally relevant time periods are lacking, leading us to conduct the current analyses.

The conclusions, though, are not waffly at all:

The results of this large, population based case–control study suggest that exposure to PCB congeners in utero may influence risk of ASD in offspring. This is one of the few studies to date examining prenatal exposure to OCCs, with exposures assessed from biospecimens collected during pregnancy, in relation to ASD and ID diagnoses. Our findings add to potential neurodevelopmental concerns surrounding these chemicals.

A study in 2010 by Boyd Barr et. al, identified organophosphates as implicated in ADHD [berkeley news] – there are many papers by Barr et. al, on NIH’s website.

Children who were exposed to organophosphate pesticides while still in their mother’s womb were more likely to develop attention disorders years later, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

The new findings, to be published Aug. 19 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), are the first to examine the influence of prenatal organophosphate exposure on the later development of attention problems. The researchers found that prenatal levels of organophosphate metabolites were significantly linked to attention problems at age 5, with the effects apparently stronger among boys.

What amazes me is that nobody seems to be talking about this stuff, but antivaxxers have all heard of Andrew Wakefield.

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Mild disclaimer: I believe that the source material I’m writing about is pretty clear and comprehensible to a layman, let alone someone with a couple of semesters of neuroanatomy and testing methods. Based on my understanding circa 1985 this all seems pretty clear. I am not saying “panic!” and I am not trying to be the next Andrew Wakefield – do not go running around, based on this, telling people to freak out. I do think that it’s a study worth tracking, and I’ve got a google news search set up so if anything more on this story drops, I’ll know about it. If one of you brings more/better knowledge to the table than I do, I welcome being corrected even if it’s roughly.

Drexel University has a more layman-oriented description of the study. [Drexel]

National Geographic has a good article summarizing the organophosphate problem. [ng]

I was curious what may have caused the spike in interest regarding Wakefield, who ought to be thoroughly “has been” in April 2016. It appears that the spike in interest corresponds to the announcements about the movie “Vaxxed” [stat] – the Hollywood treatment of Wakefield that was promoted, then pulled, by Robert DeNiro.

I believe they are mostly abated, now, but PCBs used to be in the liquid oils used to cool transformers. I probably wiped my share of them in my hair and on my face back in my “disassembling electronics” days. The big transformers at power stations used to be full of them (I took one of those apart, once; they’re really cool!)

In case you’re worried, most insecticides in use nowadays are permethrin/pyrethrin or related; they work by screwing up a cell’s energy pump; they aren’t neurotoxins. But they’re probably still nothing you want to bathe a fetus in.

The Union Carbide plant in Bohpal, India, which killed ~2,500 people was a plant making insecticide. Methyl Isocyanate was the particular toxic chemical that leaked and did the damage; the plant made carbaryl, trade name: Sevin. [wikipedia] It’s another acetylcholinesterase inhibitor insecticide.

Comments

  1. says

    SoCal has a love affair going with Malathion that has been in place for most of my lifetime. They’ll never give it up. I had relatives who sprayed clouds of that nasty crap all over the place, didn’t matter what for – fleas, various pests, dandelions, whatever. “It kills everything!” Yes. Yes, it does, you fucking moron.

    Organophosphates are wildly popular in uStates, and most people are close to soaking in them, and are blissfully unaware. Over a decade ago, I had a bloody fit when I found out that IR had forced my husband into a dangerously high temp paint oven overwhelmed with organophosphates to fix a problem. In spite of all the protective gear, he was dosed, and sick as hell for a very long time.

  2. says

    Part of the problem is that we have professional chemists (e.g. Derek Lowe, who I adore, but…) running around telling us that “chemicals” are safe, and laughing at The Public for complaining about “chemicals” anyways because it’s all chemicals innit! You’re made of chemicals, you ignorant fool!

    Anyways. I read Derek the riot act every time he goes to bat for glyphosate (which does seem to be, well, mostly safe at least), and remind him and his audience that Chemists and The Chemistry Industry has lied, covered up, and generally obfuscated the situation for 100 years, and so if you DON’T mind too much, Derek, please allow us a little skepticism.

    Organophosphates have been on the shit list for a long time, since the 1960s, but for a surprisingly nuanced view you could go read Silent Spring again. Contrary to her detractors statements, Rachel Carson felt that measured use of these chemicals was a good idea. It makes sense to balance the use of the chemicals and the associated costs (or rather, our best guesses at the costs) with the benefits. Carson felt that using DDT carefully was a pretty good idea, because malaria is pretty nasty, and 50 years later I still can’t find a substantive error in that argument.

    All THAT said, if you’re asking about why there’s not buzz specifically about studies tying orgahophospates to ASD and ADHD, I suspect that it’s because the media is a bit gun shy and a lot lazy. These studies are notoriously difficult to get right, there’s a huge amount of noise (parental diagnosis-shopping, improved/finer-grained diagnostics, blah blah blah) and there’s a grim tendency on the part of the signal to vanish entirely when the noise is properly combed out.

    Remember, if you get too busy with de-noising the study, sometimes your paper evaporates. Even the most honest scientists are, it turns out, not immune. It’s hard to understand something that your paycheck depends on not understanding.

  3. says

    Caine@#1:
    Organophosphates are wildly popular in uStates, and most people are close to soaking in them

    While I was writing that piece, all I could think was that if there was information about ASD cause that would be suppressed, that would be it. “The state doused you with it.” And it’s in loads of workplaces. It’s almost as if the antivaxxers picked something to blame ASD on that was plausible, but not too threatening to the establishment.

    I read both the papers that I reference here and they sound pretty solid. I’m waiting for some real health scientist or biologist to come along and tell me they’re wrong, though. Obviously, it’s early innings on this particular line of research (the ADHD research goes back to 2010) but once scientists are on to something, they’ll chew away at it until they figure it out. After all, they did that with the thimerosol – studies showing lack of a link took, what, 5-10 years?

  4. says

    Andrew Molitor@#2:
    Anyways. I read Derek the riot act every time he goes to bat for glyphosate (which does seem to be, well, mostly safe at least), and remind him and his audience that Chemists and The Chemistry Industry has lied, covered up, and generally obfuscated the situation for 100 years, and so if you DON’T mind too much, Derek, please allow us a little skepticism.

    I agree. I think humans don’t do a very good job of understanding the mechanism of action of various drugs and chemicals before we put them into use. The Demon Under The Microscope (recommended reading!) has some scary stuff about that: “hey, this is cheaper than that, let’s use this instead! and just ship it and we’ll see if it works on the patients!” Bad strategy when it’s ethylene glycol you’re talking about.

    The glyphosate in particular is problematic – it appears to be OK because the mechanism of operation is comprehensible and doesn’t create any nasty metabolites, etc. The industry has been pretty good about making a distinction between “do not drink the glyphosate” while “something grown using glyphosate is not changed by the experience.” Since I’ve got acres of no-till corn on my property (which are not being used for human consumption, it’s for biodiesel and oil) I keep an eye on it.

    Organophosphates have been on the shit list for a long time, since the 1960s, but for a surprisingly nuanced view you could go read Silent Spring again. Contrary to her detractors statements, Rachel Carson felt that measured use of these chemicals was a good idea. It makes sense to balance the use of the chemicals and the associated costs (or rather, our best guesses at the costs) with the benefits. Carson felt that using DDT carefully was a pretty good idea, because malaria is pretty nasty, and 50 years later I still can’t find a substantive error in that argument.

    Yeah (for anyone reading who doesn’t know: DDT is also an organochlorine insecticide) When you’re up against Zika you’ve got a damned tough choice. I’d say “that’s why people invented ‘indoors'” but that’s a bit simple.

    All THAT said, if you’re asking about why there’s not buzz specifically about studies tying orgahophospates to ASD and ADHD, I suspect that it’s because the media is a bit gun shy and a lot lazy. These studies are notoriously difficult to get right, there’s a huge amount of noise (parental diagnosis-shopping, improved/finer-grained diagnostics, blah blah blah) and there’s a grim tendency on the part of the signal to vanish entirely when the noise is properly combed out.

    I think you’re almost certainly right. The press has to be looking at this and thinking “this is like tobacco all over again.”

    I’m familiar with the basic ways studies like this can be flawed and this seems to be a solid study and it’s pointing in a similar direction with the ADHD studies. It’s only about 10^4 times more credible than Wakefield.

  5. Ice Swimmer says

    The study by Lyall et al is about PCBs and organochorine pesticides, not organophosphate pesticides. This is a significant difference.

  6. Ice Swimmer says

    Of course, the fact that the Lyall study isn’t about organophosphates doesn’t invalidate other studies about the effects of various organophosphates.

  7. says

    Ice Swimmer@#5:
    The study by Lyall et al is about PCBs and organochorine pesticides, not organophosphate pesticides. This is a significant difference.

    Yes, you’re right. I was jumping the conclusion: neurotoxin + fetus = bad, regardless of which neurotoxin, and that’s not supported by the study. Barr’s study implicates organophosphates in ADHD and Lyall implicates organochlorides and they are very different things. So are ADHD and ASD. I shouldn’t have conflated them.

  8. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#7:
    Herpes virus may be a trigger for autism

    Yeah, I saw that, too.
    That report is interesting: “doubles the risk!” from 1% to 2%, which is significant, but headlining it that way seems borderline deceptive.

    Of course the Lyall study doesn’t even ‘double’ the risk.

    Why aren’t the antivaxxers all over this stuff, though?

  9. Siobhan says

    @Marcus

    Why aren’t the antivaxxers all over this stuff, though?

    You think their annoying insistence on everyone “doing their homework” involved actually Googling? Most of them started and ended with Andrew Wakefield. 😛

  10. Dunc says

    Why aren’t the antivaxxers all over this stuff, though?

    Because the main driver of anti-vax sentiment is the visceral reaction to someone sticking a needle in your kid and making them cry. All the stuff about autism is just a post-hoc rationalisation.

  11. says

    Shiv@#10:
    You think their annoying insistence on everyone “doing their homework” involved actually Googling?

    I did! When I got into it with my anti-vaxxer former friend on facebook, she was full of all kinds of research – apparently there are mountains of interlinked self-supporting bullshit, and she had studied it thoroughly.

    I think that publications on the National Library of Medicine and NIH are probably more credible, but I guess they don’t google for real science. There may be some google search option I don’t know about…?

  12. says

    Dunc@#11:
    Because the main driver of anti-vax sentiment is the visceral reaction to someone sticking a needle in your kid and making them cry. All the stuff about autism is just a post-hoc rationalisation.

    Mayyyyyyybe. But if that was the case, then what does skinned knee cause?

  13. Dunc says

    Skinned knees generally aren’t deliberate and pre-meditated. And lots of people are really weird about needles for some reason.

  14. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I’m still of the opinion that a lot of the anti-vaxxers are part of a peculiar anti-science and anti-progress movement on the left, borderline Gaia-worship, and generally antagonistic towards the general ideas of scientific progress and industrialization.

  15. says

    I worked with an anti vaxxer who was just a guy who could do math.

    He correctly deduced that the best possible scenario was when all the kids except his got vaccinated.

    Mike would have laughed at the idea that vaccines cause autism, but he knew (again, correctly) that they are not zero risk medications.

  16. psanity says

    In 1989 California had a scare about the invasion of the Mediterranean fruit fly (“medfly”), which caused large areas of the state to be repeatedly showered with Malathion, from planes. By the state. That stuff was so corrosive that it damaged the paint on cars, aside from being a neurotoxin. Whole cities were sprayed, schoolyards, farms, everything. It would be extremely interesting to know if that has any relationship with autism cases in the following decade.

    We have autism in our family, and I assume there’s a large genetic factor there — with a critical eye on family lore, you can run it back for generations — but the most severe I know of is a nephew born in an agricultural area of CA in the mid-90’s. So you wonder. One thing almost everyone seems to agree on except extreme nutters is that autism likely has multiple interacting causes. It’s not an easy puzzle. I’m glad people are working on it, and all the various roadside stops and byways are fascinating, but I think it will be a long road. Not a great metaphor, but y’know, it’s complicated.

  17. says

    psanity@#19:
    In 1989 California had a scare about the invasion of the Mediterranean fruit fly (“medfly”), which caused large areas of the state to be repeatedly showered with Malathion, from planes. By the state.

    I remember that.
    That’s why I mentioned the Malathion: it was all over the place in the 80s. If it turns out to be implicated in developmental problems, there’ll be a great deal of hell to pay (or they’ll sweep it under the rug and kick the can down the road and wait until the problem clears up and then pass a law retroactively making it OK)

    I assume there’s a large genetic factor there

    There definitely is. It’s going to turn out to be something like alzheimers: complicated genetic predisposition being triggered by complicated environmental factors. (Not that I have any idea what will eventually be the determination on alzheimers, but we’re pretty good at figuring out simple cause and effect and neither autism nor alzheimers are simple)

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