Even when it’s not all about vaccines, it’s all about vaccines

As supporters of science-based medicine know, in the woo-sphere, there is only One True Cause of Autism, and that is vaccines. At least, so it would seem. The idea that vaccines cause autism is based largely on anecdotes tinged with confirmation bias and selective memory mixed with a massive confusing of correlation with causation whereby the increase in autism prevalence over the last twenty years appears to correlate with an expansion of the vaccine schedule. Of course, as skeptics know, correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and I’ve often asked the question why it has to be the vaccines, pointing out that there are other things that correlate as well or better with the rise in autism prevalence. Perhaps my favorite example is Internet usage, which really took off in 1994 with the introduction of the graphical browser to the masses (Netscape Navigator), correlating very well with the “autism epidemic.” Another fine example are cell phones. After all, few people had cell phones in the early to mid-1990s, but their usage took off until today, when nearly everyone has one, a very nice correlation with autism prevalence. Of course, amusingly, Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing posted a hilariously apt graph correlating organic food sales with autism diagnoses and found a near-perfect correlation coefficient and a very low p-value.

So why isn’t it organic food causing the “autism epidemic”? The answer, of course, is obvious. It’s about the vaccines. It’s always been about the vaccines. It always will be about the vaccines. Vaccines are the one fixed point in the antivaccine universe that always have caused autism, cause autism, and will cause autism, always and forever, amen.

I should be careful what I ask for when I wonder about quacks finding other correlations and other “One True Causes” of autism. In fact, I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that someone actually did come up with a “One True Cause” of autism that wasn’t vaccines and does confuse correlation with causation. It also uses some grade-A primo woo to justify the author’s “theory” of what causes autism. And you, my readers, pointed it out to me, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog. It’s a website (www.thecausesofautism.com) that leads to something called The Fullerton Informer. Basically, the “hypothesis,” such as it is, is as follows:

There are two points of discussion on the blog:

  1. WiFi in the schools is dangerous to young children
  2. A hypothesis that Microwave Electro-Magnetic Frequency Emissions acting upon metals in the child’s brain in and out of the womb is the cause of autism.

Oh, goody. EMF woo. Very tasty. I’m not going to deal with the claim that wifi in schools is dangerous, at least not now. I’ve dealt with it before, after all, and the guy who runs it, Joe Imbriano, parrots the usual pseudoscience, quackery, and tropes. There’s nothing interesting there, no no spin or twist on the idea to pique my interest enough to blog about it. On the other hand, this idea about EMF acting on the metals in a child’s brain in the womb and after birth. This is some fine, tasty woo that I haven’t heard before. Moreover, the sheer crankery in Imbriano’s explanation of this “hypothesis” of his will amuse and delight true connoisseurs of woo such as myself. He titles it Carbonyl Iron and Orange County – The Autism Capital of the State, describing it thusly, “What originally began as a quest to get the WiFi systems out of my children’s Fullerton School District classrooms has led to a miraculous hope- that is to prevent newborn and infant children from becoming Autistic and a remarkable hypothesis-the possible connection of microwave EMF emissions’ interactions with metals in Autism, and the role a certain form of iron plays in all of this.”

One wonders how this “hope” came about, one does. So let’s delve in, shall we? Imbriano describes the genesis of his idea (I refuse to dignify it anymore by calling it a “hypothesis,” even with scare quotes) thusly:

In the summer of 1983, I was working in a fast food restaurant while I was in high school. It was my lunch time and I wanted to reheat my burger from earlier that I didn’t have time to finish. Foolishly, I put it in the microwave in its shiny foil wrapper. I pushed the power button and what happened next, I will never forget. The dielectric breakdown of air, as a result of tremendous voltage spikes (roughly equal to 3,000,000 volts per meter) and the resulting high concentrations of electric charge on the metal wrapper, generated by the magnetron, was happening right in front of my very eyes. 30 years later, I bring this up to demonstrate what we all know TO BE TRUE, that microwaving certain metals is dangerous. I believe, that a particular metal, depending on the particular frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum of the EMF emissions, such as BASF_Carbonyl_Iron_Powder_CIP_DS_USL_sfs.pdf can actually absorb the microwave radiation and stop the fireworks show. Simply coat the fork in a resin containing carbonly iron, microwave it, and the fork will get hot but will not create an electrical discharge. I remember that it looked like the 4th of July inside that microwave oven. I believe that the basic physics involved in that simple event lends tremendous insight into what is going on inside the brains, intestines and the rest of the bodies of the EMF sensitive, vulnerable sub-populations such as the unborn, newborns, infants and school children, and what I believe to be, the role these microwave emissions play in Autism. The brain contains about 100 billion neurons and the intestine contains roughly 100 million. Both the gut and the brain are where Autistic children show abnormalities. I firmly believe that both the gut and the brain are being affected by the microwave EMF emissions that have become increasingly prevalent in our lives.

Yes, indeed. Apparently babies’ bodies are just like a cold burger in a shiny foil wrapper, and the EMF radiation from wifi and cell phones cause their cells to light up like a Christmas tree, just like foil placed in a microwave oven. I’m not exaggerating, either. Later in the post, Imbriano describes EMF microwave emissions “creating electrical discharges and voltage spikes on certain metals,” allowing “metals and toxins to get in the brain by opening the BBB [blood-brain barrier] channels” and producing a “fireworks show at the cellular level” that he believes is “destroying the myelin sheathing” of neurons in the brain. He likens it to a overloading a wire with too much current. Never mind, of course, that autism is not a condition associated with demyelination, which is not generally thought to be a mechanism by which autism occurs. It is, actually, the mechanism by which multiple sclerosis develops. It helps to understand the basic science. While it is true that demyelination has on occasion been proposed as a mechanism of autism, the evidence for it as a pathophysiological factor isn’t really particularly strong.

How Imbriano comes to the remarkable conclusion that somehow EMF causes demyelination that in turn causes autism is a brilliant example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which diverse observations are made that he relates without understanding the context of those observations or even the basic science that makes his conclusions from them incredibly implausible (to put it kindly). It’s the sort of thing that Kent Heckenlively and some of the other bloggers at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism do when they string together all sorts of scientific studies willy nilly into a narrative that sounds compelling to a non-scientist but that scientists laugh at because they have a deep understanding of the actual science. It reminds me of what I used to do with a friend of mine when I was 13 or 14. We’d take our junior high understanding of science (well, junior high plus; we were both big science geeks, as you might imagine) and wildly speculate about multiple universes, faster-than-light travel, medical breakthroughs, and the like, all completely ridiculous in retrospect, knowing what I know about science, but completely compelling to us. I can only imagine what my friend and I would have come up with in those conversations had the Internet and PubMed existed back in the 1970s. It would probably have been something like what Mr. Imbriano came up with. We, however, outgrew such faux scientific flights of fancy. They served us well in that they actually reflected and encouraged our love of science, but as we learned more actual science we realized how off-base they were. Unfortunately, Mr. Imbriano seems stuck at that stage, as do so many cranks, who free associate various bits of science they find and come up with hypotheses that are simple, compelling (to them and their fellow cranks, at least), and completely wrong.

So what does carbonyl iron have to do with any of this? You’ll like this:

I have been doing extensive research on the effects of microwave EMF emissions on various metals as related to my need to clearly understand the interactions of the classroom WiFi networks’ emissions with items in the classroom and the children present. What I discovered was rather remarkable. When carbonyl iron was added to an asphalt mix during the manufacturing process, it increased the microwave absorption by 15X as opposed to plain asphalt. I remembered that carbonyl iron is commonly taken as an iron supplement. I could not believe my eyes.

Citing this paper on carbonyl iron to back up his view, Imbriano then claims that anemia “shows up in almost all autistic children,” after which he speculates wildly:

So there must be something going on with iron levels or something is happening to the iron such as bone marrow incorporation as a result of EMF exposure. There are some simple explanations as to why the iron and ferritin levels are not where they should be in the newborn and infants besides heredity. The first cause comes from the lack of available iron or folate in the womb where the mother’s diet is deficient in folates as well as elemental iron. Consequently, so becomes the developing child. The important link between folates and anemia is that when folates are present, it aids the production of healthy red blood cells which help transport oxygen throughout the body. Anemia develops with the lack iron and of folates in the body due to the lack of production of healthy red blood cells. Folate levels and anemia could very well be connected if an individual has a hard time absorbing this B vitamin through regular dietary intake and has a greater need for this vitamin. Pernicious anemia results from eating poorly nutritious foods, microwaved foods, and alcohol consumption, especially during pregnancy as these upset this balance. It can be noted that iron levels can rise quite easily through the supplementation of folates and iron. It is very simple to remedy.

It’s science word salad. It sounds impressive, but says absolutely nothing that makes any sense. And Imbriano doesn’t stop there. He moves on to blame cord clamping for causing anemia that leads to…well, it’s not exactly clear what. But Imbriano knows that Pitocin induction is a confounder. How? Don’t ask. He cites a dubious article linking Pitocin induction of labor with autism, only to dismiss this link as a confounder that is associated with immediate cord clamping. It’s kind of amusing that Imbriano knows the language of epidemiology, including confounders, but has no idea how to actually identify them. In any case, he then goes on to list a bunch of other things that cause anemia, from pesticides to obesity in expecting mothers to air pollution and more. From there, Imbriano “fits the pieces together” by saying that carbonyl iron is a common form of iron in supplements and that taking iron supplements before and during pregnancy has apparently been correlated with a lower risk of autism, declaring:

n summation, we believe that the WSJ article anectdotally confirms the implication of microwave emissions in having a causative effect on Autism. It is my belief that microwave EMF emissions acting on metals are the elusive missing link. We also believe that if all of the iron supplementation of the women was with carbonyl iron, instead of ferrous sulfate or ferrous gluconate, and, in term deliveries, cord clamping was delayed until pulsation ceases, or C sections were avoided when if at all possible, we could quite possibly, see virtually no autism if my assumptions are correct. If we removed EMF exposure entirely, we may just see the same results as well. The study didn’t specify which form of iron was taken. I would venture to say that carbonyl iron and ferrous sulfate are about 40%/50% ratio in terms of use by pregnant women and the other 10% being ferrous gluconate and other plant based forms which all differ in terms of their EMF absorption and permittivity.

You know, had PubMed and Google existed in the 1970s, I do believe that my friend and I could have come up with a far more scientifically plausible explanation for the “autism epidemic. I really do. At the very least, our science word salad was far more entertaining and served the purpose of sparking our imaginations in a way that led us both to become doctors and scientists later in life. Imbriano’s science word salad is all he seems able to come up with. Then he marvels that this “hypothesis has never been proposed.” Hilariously, it never occurs to him that maybe—just maybe—the reason the hypothesis has never been proposed is because there isn’t any evidence to lead scientists to think that such a hypothesis might have sufficient validity to be worth investigating seriously. In fact, given how low the energy from EMF is, to the point where it is unable to break chemical bonds. Energy unable to do anything more than very minimal heating is incredibly unlikely to be able to induce demyelination, much less autism or anything else.

I was going give Imbriano a bit of credit, though. At first he seemed to be the first person to come up with a crank idea about how autism is caused and how to treat it that has absolutely nothing to do with vaccines. He even included a passage about how total pollution is going down, as is total mercury exposure, dismissing the as potential causes of autism. Then he disappointed me halfway through the article. He starts pointing out that the “battery of immunizations are simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the already anemic, microwave EMF damaged, electrosensitive, immunocompromised infant.”

Damn. It really is always about vaccines. Even when it seems, for once, that it actually won’t be.