New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof examines the question of whether chemicals in the environment may be partly to blame for the proliferation of autism diagnoses across the country. He cites an article by Philip J. Landrigan, just posted online in the peer-reviewed journal Current Opinion in Pediatrics, that says the “likelihood is high” that many environmental chemicals “have potential to cause injury to the developing brain and to produce neurodevelopmental disorders.”
Frankly, these are difficult issues for journalists to write about. Evidence is technical, fragmentary and conflicting, and there’s a danger of sensationalizing risks. Publicity about fears that vaccinations cause autism – a theory that has now been discredited – perhaps had the catastrophic consequence of lowering vaccination rates in America.
On the other hand, in the case of great health dangers of modern times – mercury, lead, tobacco, asbestos – journalists were too slow to blow the whistle. In public health, we in the press have more often been lap dogs than watchdogs.
At a time when many Americans still use plastic containers to microwave food, in ways that make toxicologists blanch, we need accelerated research, regulation and consumer protection.