One More Link in the Mercury-High Fructose Corn Syrup Chain: Autism | Civil Eats

One More Link in the Mercury-High Fructose Corn Syrup Chain: Autism

Editors note: The views in this article from 2009 are those of the author only, and do not reflect the views of Civil Eats.

Until now, parents of children with autism who have spoken up about their fears that their child’s disorder came on the heels of vaccination have been given the status of heretic. But it turns out that the increase in autism we have been witnessing over the last few decades could also be a result of the over-all increase in the body burden caused by mercury in our air and water, and by proxy the fish we eat, our vaccines and dental fillings, and now, in our high fructose corn syrup, a substance marketed and consumed most often by those most at risk: children.

It is a matter of record that our fish populations are accumulating mercury; and as the top of their food chain, we too are accumulating the toxin.  The neurological effects of mercury have been widely documented.  On the EPA’s website, for example, it lists the primary health effect of methylmercury on fetuses, infants, and children, as being impaired neurological development.

In 2004, a study [PDF] led by Raymond F. Palmer of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio compared the rate of special education programs in Texas and the amount of mercury found in the environment and the results were alarming: “On average, for each 1000 lb of environmental mercury released, there was a 43% increase in the rate of special education services and a 61% increase in the rate of autism.”

He co-authored a second study [PDF] from February 2008 that took into account the proximity to sources of mercury output — like coal-fired utility plants, which account for 33% of the 158 tons of mercury spewed into the atmosphere annually, municipal/medical incinerators, which account for 29%, commercial/industrial boilers, which account for 18%.  Lower on the list but still noteworthy are hazardous waste sites, cement factories, and the chlorine production plants — which is where the caustic soda tainted with mercury in HFCS is being produced.  This second study found that “for every 10 miles from industrial or power plant sources, there was an associated decreased autism Incident Risk of 2.0% and 1.4%, respectively.”  In other words, the more mercury in the environment of a child or woman of childbearing age, the more likely for the child to develop autism.

The reason that the news on Monday that HFCS contains mercury is so alarming is two fold: First, the FDA had evidence of this in 2005 and did absolutely nothing — no testing, no warning the companies using the tainted HFCS to produce their ketchup, chocolate syrup, cereal bars and soda.  Therefore, more time has passed when mercury could bio-accumulate in our bodies, especially in populations at already at risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity.  Second, there has been a previous association made between diet and autistic functionality — and specifically HFCS has been singled out as a cause for worsening the disorder. This means that there has been a growing body of evidence relating mercury to autism for some time, in which HFCS is only a new development.

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This is dark news, because it means that our FDA is no longer working for us, and that in this time when we might have a receptive ear in Washington, it is more important than ever to challenge the preconceived notions of how government works. This could amount to one of the worst offenses by our government, which has been sitting on the evidence of mercury’s relationship to our health for too long in the name of corporate welfare.

The parents of autistic children should be given more of a voice in this discussion. In an article published on in 2005, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. laid out the details on the correlation between autism and childhood vaccines.  It became clear to him that the parents of autistic children who blamed the vaccines for their child’s disorder were onto something when he stumbled onto a report from a conference in 2000 called Simpsonwood, where high-level officials from the FDA and Center for Disease Control (CDC), the top vaccine specialist from the World Health Organization in Geneva, and representatives of every major vaccine manufacturer, including GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Wyeth and Aventis Pasteur gathered to discuss a new study that linked a mercury-based preservative in vaccines to increasing rates of autism.  This group, instead of changing course, and giving value to the science before them, proceeded to cover up the data to save the vaccine companies’ bottom line.

Now, we are faced with some hard truth about the consequences of our environmental choices beginning at the Industrial Revolution.  While thimerosal, the mercury-laden preservative used in some vaccinations, is being phased out, we should still be asking for a better assessment of our body burden of mercury.  With all that we know now, about what toxic pollution in the air and water do to our food and by proxy our bodies, will we face facts and begin the process of real, lasting change that the Obama adminstration has so far seemed a beacon for?  The first step will be taking a hard look at environmental mercury, one of the most prevalent pollutants in our environment.  We have a mess on our hands, and we need to begin to repair the damage done before we can move forward healthfully.

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. Thank you.

    Kim, mom to 3 girls with autism
  2. Alice
    The Simpsonwood report only showed a correlation of data. Thimerosal was phased out of vaccines because it is an unnecessary exposure to mercury. But vaccines have never, ever been shown to cause autism despite many large, carefully controlled studies.

    Can you reference some studies which demonstrate that mercury poisoning causes autism?
  3. Laura
    <blockquote cite="Thimerosal was phased out of vaccines because it is an unnecessary exposure to mercury."

    Thimerosal was an unnecessary exposure to mercury...Is HFCS a *necessary* exposure? I think not.

    HFCS should be eliminated, as well. Regardless of whether or not mercury is a cause or factor in autism, it's not good for us, period. It shouldn't be in our food, and it's the FDA's duty to make sure it's not.
  4. Catherine
    Phenomena occuring simultaneously do not necessarily prove cause and effect. Polluting heavy industries are generally situated near low-income neighborhoods which may have less access to pre- and post-natal health care and a host of other factors that could influence autism rates.
  5. mommytoomany
    I wish the media and the "militia" would step away from the mercury connection and autism.
    My youngest son is severely affected by autism. No MMR shot has ever touched his body. I do not eat fish and nor does he. He is 7 years old, and he has had only 1 vaccination in his whole little life with absolutely no thimerasol in it.
    Parent's need someone or something to blame (I mean bash) for the rates of Autism.
    Get ready corn syrup industry, the militia is headed your way.
    • pcrossfield
      mommytoomany, I appreciate your perspective. However, the article intended to point out that there are a lot of unknowns about our mercury exposure (via the environment around us, as well as vaccines, fish, fillings and now HFCS) and sought to push the government into doing what is in all of our interest, whether we be parents of autistic children or just individuals worried about our body burden of mercury. It is important for us to have all of the facts, and for the country to take responsibility for cleaning up this mess.
  6. Chas
    Clarification: Despite RFK Jr's attempt to make "Simpsonwood" some kind of sinister codeword for a clandestine meeting, it is merely the name of the popular conference center where the meeting in question took place. Also, Kennedy didn't "stumble onto" the report, unless he tripped over the printed document, which there was never any attempt to suppress (it was embargoed briefly pending presentation to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices). Also, there was no coverup, as anyone who cares to read the report will find.
  7. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy report and the journal article it references fail to meet scientific standards for serious research and published literature. It would be wrong to conclude that there is any kind of food risk based on these reports.

    No mercury or mercury-based technology is used in the production of high fructose corn syrup in North America.

    In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed high fructose corn syrup as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996.

    It is important to put these questionable findings into context. The mercury levels cited by these reports are far below levels of concern set by the federal government. For example, EPA sets limits for mercury in water at two parts per billion. In comparison, the authors measured levels at parts per trillion in foods with high fructose corn syrup. Trace amounts of mercury can be found in the air, water, soil, and many other foods. The authors admit that they cannot determine the source of the mercury cited in the report. The reports are also based on outdated information.

    ChemRisk, Inc., a scientific consulting firm, examined the recent report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), "Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup," and the Environmental Health journal report "Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar," by Dufault et al., 2009. The full analysis can be found at

    Audrae Erickson
    Corn Refiners Association

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