What do polio, pesticides, and cell phone radiation have in common?

No matter how you slice it, I’ve been at this blogging thing a long time. it’s been over seven years now. It’s been even longer than that, though, because before that cold gray Saturday afternoon in September when I started farting around with Blogger and ended giving birth to the first iteration of Respectful Insolence, I had been sparring with quacks, cranks, and various other promoters of pseudoscience for at least five years before. Even after all that time, however, it’s humbling and amazing to contemplate that I haven’t seen it all, no matter how much at times I might feel that I have. Every so often, I hear a pseudoscientific claim that I’ve never heard before. That’s why, when I come across one, it’s like the proverbial catnip to a cat.

So it was when I happened to be perusing one of the many wretched hives of scum and quackery on the Internet, NaturalNews.com. True, it’s not by that uber-crank and conspiracy theorist who runs that particular wretched hive, Mike Adams. Rather, it’s by someone named Jonathan Benson, who is billed as a staff writer. That means that it isn’t as crazy in tone as the typical Mike Adams screed, but what it makes up for in the sheer looniness that is Mike Adams, it makes up for in pure antivaccine pseudoscience combined with environmental woo, when declares boldly, History shows polio caused by pesticide exposure, then was eradicated by decline in DDT use.

When it comes to that most basic logical fallacy of all, confusing correlation with causation, otherwise known as post hoc ergo propter hoc.

It starts out very badly and goes downhill from there:

One of the most common arguments people often use to defend vaccinations alleges that vaccines are responsible for eradicating epidemic diseases of the past such as polio and smallpox. But a recent investigative review put together by Jeffry John Aufderheide over at VacTruth.com explains not only why this claim is untrue, but also why pesticides may have been responsible for spurring these disease outbreaks in the first place.

As part of a trivia series on polio, Aufderheide cites several studies showing that the widespread use of chemical pesticides such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, and heptachlor following World War II, actual exacerbated viral disease outbreaks across the United States.

Oh, goody. Jeffry John Aufderheide. We’ve met him before. He writes for antivaccine sites as diverse as SANEVax and VacTruth.org. In this case, Benson cites a post by Aufderheide on VacTruth.org that lays down the misinformation right and left about polio entitled 7 Trivia Facts About Polio, except that it should be called “7 Trivial ‘Facts’ about Polio.” So what, exactly, is Benson talking about? He’s citing Aufderheide’s “analysis” comparing pesticide production to polio in which he “borrows” a graph from another crank website that claims that DDT somehow made the polio virus more virulent, leading to more cases of infantile paralysis. Since a picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, I thought I’d borrow the graph as well:

Hmmm. Wait a minute. Remember how I said that I hadn’t heard about this one before. I was mistaken. Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted, that not-so-dynamic journalistic duo from the anti-vaccine rank blog Age of Autism. In fact, I’ve more than heard of it. I blogged about it less than a year ago! Twice! The same elements are all there in the NaturalNews.com and VacTruth.org posts. In particular, notice how the graph lumps together DDT with other types of pesticides, even though they are a very different bunch of chemicals. The reason they do this is pretty obvious. If they don’t, there isn’t even correlation anymore, and without correlation they can’t even imply causation. The reason this is necessary is because some of the worst epidemics of polio occurred in the 1940s and 1950s, when the use of other forms of pesticides was on the wane. So, in order to preserve the appearance of a correlation, antivaccinationists pivot seamlessly to DDT. It’s exactly what Blaxill and Olmsted did, and it’s exactly what Aufderheide did in a slightly different manner. In fact, Aufderheide more or less admits this when he cites this quote from one of his references:

…Before 1940, relatively small amounts of such chemicals as nicotine, rotenone, pyrethrum, and the aresenicals (sic) were used for insect control. During and following World War II a rapid changeover to DDT, heptachlor, dieldrin, TEPP, malathion, and related compounds occurred.”

Except that he’s wrong. Lots of lead arsenate compounds were used before 1940. How do we know this? Because Blaxill and Olmsted tell us so because they were trying to pin outbreaks of infantile paralysis on such compounds, speculating without good evidence that somehow exposure to such pesticides made a polio infection that wouldn’t be that big a deal into full-blown infantile paralysis. It was utter nonsense when Blaxill and Olmsted argued it, and it’s utter nonsense when Aufderheide argues it, too, just with a different spin. It is rather amusing, though, how antivaccinationists can’t seem to settle on one story to try to promote the lie that vaccines didn’t cause the decline in polio incidence.

It’s also amusing that the fall in incidence of polio actually precedes the decline in the production of DDT.

So I remain disappointed. It was merely my faulty memory that led me to believe that I had found a new treasure trove of antivaccine woo to analyze. It turns out that I’ve seen this one before—and relatively recently, too. On the other hand, I think I’ve found the source of most of Blaxill and Olmsted’s pseudoscience regarding polio, pesticides, and the polio vaccine. It’s this website, which is a veritable cornucopia of polio pseudoscience that might provide me with future blogging material.

But all is not lost. Even though the first bit was a bust, at least as far as being a form of antivaccine pseudoscience that I haven’t seen before, fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be), I found another one, and this one I’m sure I haven’t seen before. It’s by—surprise, surprise!—someone we’ve also met before. Remember Heidi Stevenson? When last we met her, she was lecturing proponents and practitioners of science-based medicine about evidence, trumpeting anecdotal evidence as the best evidence, and likening homeopathy to anesthesia because we don’t know exactly how every anesthetic works. We first encountered her when she made a neuron-apoptosingly idiotic attack on Steve Barrett. This time around, she’s merrily confusing correlation with causation in an even bigger way that Jeff Aufderheide did in a post entitled WiFi and EM Radiation—The Rest of the Autism Story.

That’s right. EMF and wifi cause autism! Here we go again:

It has been well documented, though distorted by mainstream media, that there is a clear link between vaccinations and autism(1), along with other neurological disorders. There is, though, another factor that has recently been clearly linked to autism: wireless technology.

Of course, it’s actually been well-documented, though distorted to no end by antivaccine loons like Stevenson, that there is no link between vaccinations and autism. No doubt her explanation of why she thinks wifi causes autism will be amusing. Now, I know what you’re thinking right here. You’re thinking: Wifi/cell phones/etc. causes autism? Big deal? Where’s the sheer nuttiness in that? Sure, there’s no biologically plausible mechanism, and sure there’s no evidence. But it’s boring. Cranks of all stripes like to blame cell phones, wifi, and “electronic smog” for all manner of conditions and diseases despite the utter lack of evidence that they can or do cause these conditions and diseases.

Patience, my readers. It’s the explanation that’s hilarious. It begins with a man named George Louis Carlo, an epidemiologist who’s, as I sometimes say, “gone rogue” and become a “brave maverick doctor.” Except that he’s not a doctor, at least not a physician. He’s an epidemiologist who’s basically betrayed the fundamental principles of his profession, twisting them to find correlation where there is none and abusing basic physics in the process. Here’s his explanation, which Stevenson laps right up:

Carlo developed a theory that low frequency cell phone signals are harmful to cell function. This results in cells protecting themselves by stopping movement of nutrients and waste products through the cellular membrane. Inability to move wastes outside cells results in a buildup of toxins. This led him to suspect a connection with the enormous increase in autism. His hypothesis suggests that children with autism are less able to process heavy metals, so they remain in their bodies—primarily the brain—and cause neurological damage, including autism.

That’s right. Carol thinks that the magic cell phone signals, with energy too weak to do anything more than transfer thermal energy into tissue, and only a tiny amount of thermal energy at that, can somehow affect children’s brains such that the neurons can’t get rid of toxic heavy metals, such as mercury. According to Carlo apparently, that’s why chelation “doesn’t work” for some children. Of course, because autism is not caused by mercury poisoning, chelation doesn’t actually “work” for any child with autism, but it is an article of faith among the mercury militia wing of the antivaccine movement that mercury from the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines until 2001 is a major cause of the “autism epidemic.” Carlo provides an excuse, an “out” if you will, to parents doing chelation therapy for whom it isn’t working (i.e., all of them).

So what we have here is a pseudoscientific hypothesis with no significant evidence to support it that is also biologically incredibly implausible. No wonder Stevenson would be so enamored of it. She is, after all, a homeopath, and homeopathy is the mother of all ridiculously implausible medical modalities. But what about Carlo? I had never heard of him before. Fortunately, in this case, Google is my friend. I learned from Sourcewatch that Carlo actually worked for the cell phone industry until around 2003, when a dispute over the millions of dollars he was granted to use to study possible cell phone health dangers led to a “Damascian conversion, and overnight he became an enemy of the cellphone industry.” Now, that in and of itself is no reason to discount him. You never know; he might be on to something, as unlikely as that is. However, the lack of evidence and biological plausibility supporting his ideas are a plenty good reason to discount him. It’s also useful to note that Carlo seems to be heavily into a lot of woo, as described on this webpage about him. (I’m saving it because it’s on a MobileMe account, and MobileMe is going away on June 30). Perhaps the most revealing passage is this account of a talk by Carlo:

Unfortunately, Dr. Carlo didn’t have any handouts, and I can’t find his theory his web page, or anywhere in fact. But he expressed it very clearly, and when he was questioned about it he reaffirmed it very specifically; so I think that the following is a very faithful rendition:

  • Radio waves that carry information do not occur naturally.
  • Therefore life has evolved in the complete absence of those waves.
  • Therefore no organism has ever developed defensive mechanisms against those waves.
  • Therefore those waves are toxic and…
  • There can be no safe dose of those waves.

Whenever I hear someone claim that their is no “safe dose” of anything, it sets my skeptical antennae a’twichin’. He also has no evidence that radio waves carrying information are any different in terms of their biological effects than regular old radio waves of the type that have existed since the universe began. Basically, it’s the idea that, because it’s not “natural” it must be bad for you; i.e., the naturalistic fallacy.

But, if we are to believe Stevenson, there’s actual research! It’s crappy research, of course, but it’s apparently research nonetheless:

So, they decided to test Carlo’s hypothesis. They chose a 10-year-old boy with severe autism whose parents had tried every therapy they could find, including chelation, but to no benefit.

First, they removed toxins from the boy’s home, including cell phones, pollutants of all kinds, all wireless equipment, and most electrical equipment. All EM Radiation radiation devices were removed from Mariea’s clinic, or their radiation was shielded. No wireless devices were allowed to enter.

Thus, most of the boy’s time was spent without EM Radiation radiation. Hair and stool analyses were done to track whether he was able to excrete heavy metals, and gradually, they did. Most thrilling, though, is that this boy, who had been able to say nothing more than “Yes” or “No” started to talk. At one point, he told his parents, “The noise has gone from my head.”

Mariea and Carlo then set up a trial with 20 children with autism. This one was less strict, involving little more than spending at least four hours, two-to-three times a week, in theEM Radiation-free clinic. It did not require such limitations elsewhere and no chelation was done. In three months, analyses showed that heavy metals were beginning to be excreted by the children. This is reported in the Journal of the Australian College of Nutrition and Environmental Medicine in the November 2007 issue.

The study being discussed appears to be this one, at least as far as I can tell. Also, as far as I can tell, the Journal of the Australian College of Nutrition and Environmental Medicine is not a journal indexed on PubMed and appears to publish mainly commentaries and low quality studies. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the study, and neither does my university. Certainly, this study is low quality as well. It’s a single-arm, non-randomized, non-blinded study. The index patient underwent a different regimen from the rest of the subjects, and, worse, as far as I can tell from the abstract (“Data were recorded from clinical records and arrayed according to the intervention regimen followed by each subject.”), the subjects were not studied prospectively, but retrospectively. In other words, the subjects were already undergoing some sort of EMF-shielding woo, and Carlo appears to have glommed on to them. In other words, this study’s a mess, and we can’t really conclude anything from it.

Not that that stops Stevenson from urging parents not to be “railroaded” into vaccinating their children and to give this advice:

Homeopathic treatment by a professional can be effective in helping a child reach his or her full potential. Nonetheless, my first advice, as a professional homeopath, would be to do everything possible to eliminate WiFi and EM Radiation from your child’s environment. If you live close to overhead wirelines or cell phone masts, then move. It may be expensive, but consider the expense to your child’s entire life or the costs of raising such a child, let alone the emotional turmoil you’d be facing.

Besides homeopathy and EMF-shielding, which, although useless, are more or less harmless, Stevens also recommends chelation therapy, which is anything but harmless. She even made me chuckle by solemnly lecturing us that “a true understanding of science means understanding that nothing is ever fully proven” and uses this to proclaim that if we wait until there is—oh, you know—actual evidence, it’ll be too late to save our children from the depredations of big pharma.

Won’t you think of the children?

So there you have it. According to Carlo and Stevenson, not only are those evil toxins and heavy metals from vaccines causing autism, but cell phone radiation, wifi, and radio waves are making matters worse by preventing children from excreting all those “toxins.” Never mind that there’s no biological mechanism that’s the least bit plausible to explain how radio waves could do this and that there’s no good evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Same as it ever was. Oh well. I guess I’ve learned something new. Whether that something new was worth learning or not I highly doubt. At least I’ve added another bit of antivaccine woo to my repository and won’t be surprised by it when I see it again. And I’m sure I will see it again.