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A Letter From Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Robert De Niro to American Journalists

On the occasion of our announcement of the World Mercury Project's $100K challenge, we want to address America's reporters, journalists, columnists, editors, network anchors, on-air doctors and news division producers.

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Yale University Study Shows Association Between Vaccines and Brain Disorders

A team of researchers from the Yale School of Medicine and Penn State College of Medicine have found a disturbing association between the timing of vaccines and the onset of certain brain disorders in a subset of children.

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CDC Knew Its Vaccine Program Was Exposing Children to Dangerous Mercury Levels Since 1999

Uncovered documents show that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) knew that infant vaccines were exposing American children to mercury far in excess of all federal safety guidelines since 1999. The documents, created by a FDA consulting toxicologist, show how federal regulators concealed the dangerous impacts and lied to the public.

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Mounting Evidence Links Lead, Mercury and Arsenic to Autism

In November 2016, I reported on six studies that found strong relationships between biomarkers for mercury toxicity in children with autism including a direct correlation between the levels of mercury toxicity and the severity of autism symptoms. Those findings are supported by recent research that links industrial exposures of lead, mercury and arsenic to the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

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Early Pregnancy Flu Shots: New Research Hints of Autism Link

A Nov. 19 study, of 45,231 women, published in JAMA Pediatrics, identified a heightened risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis in the children of mothers who received a flu shot during their first trimester of pregnancy. The study, Association Between Influenza Infection and Vaccination During Pregnancy and Risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder, was authored by Ousseny Zerbo and his colleagues affiliated with the Division of Research at Kaiser Permanente.

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New Study Confirms That Mercury Is Linked to Autism

Two new studies by international teams, including Egyptian scientists, have validated the link between autism and mercury.

In an article published in the journal Metabolic Brain Disease, a team of nine scientists from leading Egyptian universities and medical schools confirmed the causal role of mercury in the onset of autism.

At least six American studies have linked autism presence or severity to mercury exposure as determined by measuring urinary porphyrins.

The scientists determined the extent of mercury poisoning in children by measuring urinary excretion of organic compounds called porphyrins, which act as biomarkers for mercury toxicity. The researchers also measured blood levels of mercury and lead. The researchers found a strong relationship between mercury toxicity and the presence of autism and a direct correlation between levels of mercury toxicity and the severity of autism symptoms.

The scientists studied 100 children; 40 with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), 40 healthy individuals and 20 healthy siblings of ASD children. The results showed that the children with ASD had significantly higher mercury levels than healthy children and healthy siblings. Children with the highest mercury levels had the most severe autism symptoms.

At least six American studies have linked autism presence or severity to mercury exposure as determined by measuring urinary porphyrins. The first study, completed by Heyer et al. in 2012 (Autism Res 5:84) showed a correlation between the presence of autism and specific urinary porphyrins associated with mercury toxicity. This affirmed an earlier study by Kern et al. (2011, Pediatr Int 53:147) where specific porphyrins associated with mercury toxicity were significantly higher in ASD children as compared to non-autistic controls. Woods et al. (2010, Environ Health Perspect 118:1450) also saw disordered porphyrin metabolism in autistic kids which was not observed in non-autistic control children. This again suggested increased mercury toxicity associated with autism and autism spectrum disorder.

Autism severity has also been correlated to levels of specific porphyrins associated with mercury toxicity. Kern et al. in 2010 (Biometals 23:1043) showed a strong relationship between the level of autism severity as measured by the Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC) instrument and the amount of urinary porphyrins observed in ASD children. Geier et al. (2009, J Toxicol Environ Health A 72:1585) also correlated urinary porphyrins to autism severity in a blind study using the childhood autism rating scale (CARS). This study was further elucidated by Geier et al. (2009, J Neurol Sci 15:280) where children with severe autism showed significantly higher urinary porphyrins associated with mercury toxicity as compared to those children with mild autism and non-autistic controls. Other biomarkers measured in this study correlating mercury toxicity with autism severity include the presence of glutathione, cysteine and sulfate metabolites in plasma.

In a second study, by Mostafa et al., published in Metabolic Brain Disease in June 2016, an international team of Egyptian, Norwegian, Saudi Arabian and Chilean physicians and scientists used a different set of measurement protocols to find a direct correlation between mercury levels and autism diagnosis. The reasearchers measured levels of neurokinin A and B - pro-inflammatory neuro peptides that indicate the presence of mercury in the blood – in 84 children with ASD and 84 controls. The results showed a positive linear relationship between mercury levels and the severity of autism symptoms.

Many of the mothers of children in the first 2016 Egyptian study (Khaled et al.) had multiple dental amalgams which may have contributed to the children's body levels of mercury. The study does not examine the potential link between autism and the vaccine preservative, thimerosal, which is 50 percent ethyl mercury by weight. However, other studies indicate that the ethyl mercury in thimerosal is 50 times as toxic to human tissue as the methylmercury in amalgams and fish (Guzzi et al. 2012, Interdiscipl Toxicol 5:159) and at least twice as persistent in the brain (Burbacher et al. 2005, Environ Health Perspect 113:1015).

The 2016 Metabolic Brain Disease studies are only the latest in a series of important studies by leading Egyptian doctors and scientists linking mercury exposure to autism. A September 2015 paper published in Behavioral Neurology (Mohamed et al. 2015, PMID 26508811) by a group of researchers from the faculty of Cairo's Ain Shams University and the National Institute of Standards studied 100 autistic children and 100 healthy children. The researchers found significantly high levels of mercury, lead and aluminum in the autistic children (probably from maternal fish consumptions, living near gas stations and usage of aluminum paints) and concluded that "environmental exposure to these toxic metals at key times in development may play a causal role in autism."

A November 2014 study published in Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology (38:1016) by Heba Yassa of the Assuit University Medical School's Department of Forensic Medicine and Clinical Toxicology, looked at 45 children with autism and 45 controls. Using blood and hair samples, Dr. Yassa also found high levels of lead and mercury among the children with autism and not the controls. Using dimercaptosuccinic acid or DMSA as a chelating agent, Dr. Yassa was able to reduce blood mercury and lead levels in the autistic children. His study documents significant declines in autism symptoms with the decrease of metals in the children's blood. The study's concluded: "Lead and mercury are considered as one of the main causes of autism. Environmental exposure as well as genetic inability of certain individuals to excrete metals is responsible for the high levels of heavy metals. Detoxification by chelating agents had a great role in improving those kids."

Dr. Yassa's study duplicated the results of numerous previous peer-reviewed papers and case studies. For example, Blaucok-Busch et al. 2012 Maedica 7:214 and Adams et al. 2009 BMC Clinical Pharmacol 9:17 documents improvements in autism symptoms and even loss of the autism diagnosis following mercury chelation.

Dr. Yassa's 2014 study supported earlier findings by a team of German and Egyptian government and university medical school scientists, which reported in a 2012 study published in Maedica, a Journal of Clinical Medicine (Blaucok-Busch et al. 7:214). The scientists studied the efficacy of DMSA chelation therapy in a sample of Arab children with autism spectrum disorder. That study found that oral DMSA chelation in 44 children with autism ages 3 to 9 reduced body burden of three metals—cadmium, mercury and lead—and that detoxification reduced their behavioral effects and neurological symptoms of autism.

These 2014 and 2012 Egyptian studies supported the findings of several other publications and case studies, suggesting that heavy metal chelation has a measurable therapeutic effect on autism. Other studies have reported significant improvement in the symptoms of autistic children following treatment with chelating drugs that remove metals from the body. In a 2002 study, 10 patients with autism were treated with a chelating agent. All but two of the patients showed improvement in their ATEC scores (Lonsdale et al., Neuro Endocrinol Lett 2002, 23:303). A study in 2003 by Jeff Bradstreet compared mercury excretion after three day treatment using the chelating agent, DMSA, and found that children with autism excreted three times the amount of mercury in their urine as the non-autistic control group (Bradstreet, et al., J Am Phys Surg 2003, 8:76).

These are only a sampling of the groundbreaking studies by Egyptian scientists, doctors and researchers on the etiology of autism. Impressive Egyptian studies beg a host of questions for public health officials and American citizens. Most prominently: why can a chaotic society in a war torn and relatively impoverished nation produce high quality science on the etiology and successful treatments of autism while the science on the environmental triggers of autism in the U.S. is stagnant despite the National Institutes of Health spending more than $1 billion on autism research since 2010?

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CDC Scientists Expose Agency Corruption

Last month, The Hill published a letter sent by "more than a dozen" senior Center for Disease Control (CDC) scientists charging the agency with nursing an atmosphere of pervasive research fraud.

The group, which claimed to represent scientists across the CDC's diverse branches, calls itself SPIDER (Scientists Preserving Integrity, Diligence and Ethics in Research). The letter to CDC Chief of Staff, Carmen Villar, expressed alarm "about the current state of ethics at our agency." The scientists complained that "our mission is being influenced and shaped by outside parties and rogue interests" and "circumvented by some of our leaders."

The scientists told Villar that, "questionable and unethical practices, occurring at all levels and in all of our respective units, threaten to undermine our credibility and reputation as a trusted leader in public health." The letter charged that staff level scientists "are intimidated and pressed to do things they know are not right," and that, "Senior management officials at CDC are clearly aware and even condone these behaviors."

The scientists cited several recent scandals involving scientific corruption at CDC.

  • They describe a "cover up," by officials, of mismanagement in CDC's Wise Woman Program, which provides screening in low income neighborhoods for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health disorders. According to the letter, CDC officials purposefully misrepresented screening numbers in documents they sent to Congress to conceal failures in the multimillion dollar project. "... definitions were changed and data 'cooked' to make the results look better than they were." The scientists accused high level CDC bosses of suppressing the results of an internal review, involving staff across the CDC, "so media and/or Congressional staff would not become aware of the problems." As part of the systematic cover up, CDC then engaged in a coordinated effort to "bury" these deceptions. "CDC staff has gone out of its way to delay FOIAs and obstruct any inquiry."
  • The scientists also complain about the "troubling" adventures of Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, and Dr. Michael Pratt, Senior Advisor for Global Health at the NCCDPHP. Bowman recently left the CDC following shocking media disclosures that the pair had manipulated scientific studies on soft drink safety in collusion with Coca Cola. The CDC flimflam was part of Coke's campaign to pressure the World Health Organization to relax guidelines for sugar consumption by children in developing nations where the soda industry is aggressively expanding its markets.

The scientists complain that the "climate of disregard" at CDC puts "many" agency scientists in difficult positions. "We are often directed to do things we know are not right." The public record supports SPIDER's allegations that scientists who insist on research integrity suffer persecution by CDC supervisors.

  • On Sept. 27, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, announced further investigation of corruption in the agency's Zika testing program. That investigation arose from disclosures by laboratory chief Dr. Robert Lanciotti, supervisor of the CDC's prestigious Fort Collins, Colorado lab, that his CDC supervisors were deliberately using a Zika test that agency officials knew would underestimate the number of Zika cases nationwide by some 40 percent. Dr. Lanciotti initially raised the issues internally at CDC and in an email to state public health officials in April 2016. In May, his CDC supervisor responded to this boat rocking by demoting Lanciotti to a non-supervisory position within his lab. Dr. Lanciotti filed a whistleblower claim alleging that his punishment was retaliation for his disclosures. After its initial investigation, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel forced the CDC to reinstate Dr. Lanciotti as lab chief.
  • In a 2010 scandal that predated the Flint, Michigan tragedy, Congress found that the CDC had deliberately manipulated scientific documents and purposefully made inaccurate claims about the safety of Washington, DC drinking water in order to mislead DC residents into believing that their water was safe. The congressional committee found that the CDC's deceit had caused thousands of DC residents to drink water highly contaminated with lead for years to the detriment of their health. As with the Coca Cola and Wise Woman Program scandals, the immediate victims of CDC scientific fraud and mismanagement were disproportionately poor and minority.
  • In August 2014, CDC senior vaccine safety scientist, Dr. William Thompson, invoked federal whistleblower status and testified to Congressman William Posey that his CDC supervisors had ordered him to destroy data and manipulate studies to conceal injuries to black children from certain vaccines. According to Thompson's testimony to Congressman Posey, data analyzed by Thompson and a team of scientists for a key study showed that black boys who received the MMR vaccine on schedule, had a 250% increase in autism diagnoses. The data also pointed to the vaccine as a culprit in the epidemic of regressive autism in both white and black children. A high level CDC official, Dr. Frank DeStefano, ordered Thompson and his fellow scientists to destroy that data in a large garbage can and omit the damning findings from the published study. That study has been cited more than 110 times in published studies on PubMed, and forms the cornerstone of the CDC's orthodoxy that vaccines don't cause autism.
  • One of the key figures in the cover up described by Dr. Thompson is the Director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Dr. Colleen Boyle. Boyle's seminal career coup at the CDC was orchestrating the cover up of Agent Orange and dioxin toxicity in the 1970s. Boyle's handiwork deprived thousands of Vietnam veterans of health benefits until her fraud was uncovered and exposed in comprehensive investigations by Congress and the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Instead of punishing Boyle for corruption and scientific fraud, the CDC rewarded her with a powerful directorship. From that platform, Boyle has managed the CDC's cover up of the vaccine-autism connection.

The recent SPIDER letter highlights the culture of deep-rooted scientific corruption that has metastasized across CDC and become the subject of a decade- long parade of investigations.

  • On Aug. 23, 2000, following a three year investigation, a House Government Reform Committee staff report criticized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC for routinely allowing scientists with conflicts of interest to serve on two influential advisory committees that make recommendations on vaccine policy. The report concluded that, "the majority of members of both committees have financial ties to vaccine manufacturers or hold patents on vaccines under development."
  • Three years later, a 2003 investigation by UPI's Mark Benjamin found that CDC had ignored Congress's recommendations for reform, which stated: "Members of the CDC's Vaccine Advisory Committee get money from vaccine manufacturers. Relationships have included: sharing a vaccine patent; owning stock in a vaccine company; payments for research; getting money to monitor manufacturer vaccine tests; and funding academic departments."
  • A year later, in May of 2004, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, sent a letter to Congress urging congressional action on evidence of scientific fraud in the CDC's vaccine division. Bloch described possible collusion between CDC officials and pharmaceutical companies to manipulate and destroy data in order to conceal the links between mercury-preserved vaccines and the exploding incidence of pediatric neurological disorders including autism.
  • A month later, on June 18, 2004, Congressman Dave Weldon, MD took to the House floor to accuse CDC of failing to reform: "A public relations campaign, rather than sound science, seems to be the modus operandi of officials at the CDC's National Immunization Program." Congressman Weldon concluded that, "The CDC is too conflicted to oversee this vaccine safety function."
  • In January 2006, amidst the corruption scandals, the prestigious journal Nature editorialized in reference to vaccine safety that, "there is a strong case for a well-resourced independent agency that commands the trust of both the government and the public."
  • A year later, in 2007, Weldon and Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced the Vaccine Safety and Public Confidence Assurance Act of 2007, a bill to create a new agency to supervise vaccine safety that reported directly to the Secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and to mandate independent vaccine safety research. Weldon declared that, despite all the scandals and investigations, there were no signs of reform at CDC. "Federal agencies charged with overseeing vaccine safety research have failed," he said. "They have failed to provide sufficient resources for vaccine safety research. They have failed to adequately fund extramural research. And, they have failed to free themselves from conflicts of interest that serve to undermine public confidence in the safety of vaccines."
  • In June of that year, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, of the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, published "CDC Off Center," yet another lengthy exposé of corruption and mismanagement at CDC. The report detailed "how an agency tasked with fighting disease has spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars for failed prevention efforts, international junkets, and lavish facilities, but cannot demonstrate it is controlling disease."
  • In December 2009, the HHS Inspector General published the results of a lengthy investigation of corruption in the CDC's vaccine division. That shocking report painted the CDC as a hopelessly corrupted arm of the pharmaceutical industry. It described, in detail, mismanagement, dysfunction and the alarming conflicts of interest that suborn the CDC's research, regulatory and policymaking functions. The report discloses how CDC allows vaccine industry profiteers to make millions of dollars by serving on advisory boards that add new vaccines to the schedule. In a typical example, Dr. Paul Offit, in 1999, sat on the CDC's vaccine advisory committee and voted to add the rotavirus vaccine to CDC's schedule, paving the way for him to make a fortune on his own rotavirus vaccine patent. Offit and his business partners sold the royalties to his rotavirus vaccine patent to Merck in 2006 for $182 million. Offit told Newsweek, "It was like winning the lottery!" HHS investigation revealed that 97% of CDC's scientific committee members failed to complete the mandatory conflict of interest disclosures and that as many as 64% of committee members disclosed conflicts of interest that were not acted upon by the CDC.
  • In 2014, the chief of the HHS Office of Research Integrity (ORI), David Wright, announced his resignation in a scathing letter that characterized HHS as a remarkably dysfunctional agency. ORI's function is to monitor research misconduct including, "falsification" and "fabrication" of science at the CDC, FDA and other public health agencies. Calling the post, "The very worst job I've ever had," Wright decried an "intensely political environment" where his supervisors told him that his job was to be a "team player" and "to make my bosses look good" and where he spent "exorbitant amounts of time in meetings and in generating repetitive and often meaningless data and reports to make our precinct of the bureaucracy look productive," rather than pursuing its mission of detecting and punishing scientific fraud.

Given this long history of deeply entrenched scientific chicanery at the CDC, it's no surprise that scientists are now complaining. If Donald Trump is sincere about his promise to "Drain the Swamp" in the federal bureaucracy, he should begin by appointing an honest and able CDC director who can restore transparency, credibility, robust science and regulatory independence at the agency and who will turn around the culture of corruption that has been so damaging to children's health.

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CDC Blocks Testimony by Vaccine Whistleblower in Medical Malpractice Case

Thomas Frieden, the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), has blocked CDC whistleblower, Dr. William Thompson, from testifying on scientific fraud and destruction of evidence by senior CDC officials in critical vaccine safety studies regarding the causative relationship between childhood vaccines and autism.

The medical malpractice case seeking Dr. Thompson's testimony is on behalf of 16-year-old Yates Hazlehurst. The lawsuit alleges that Yates is autistic as a result of vaccine injuries.

Attorneys Bryan Smith and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., of Morgan & Morgan, have been seeking to have Dr. Thompson testify in a medical malpractice case to explain how the CDC committed scientific fraud in a series of studies, which found no link between vaccines and autism.

In denying the request, Dr. Frieden said, "Dr. William Thompson's deposition testimony would not substantially promote the objectives of CDC or HHS [Health and Human Services]."

Dr. Thompson, a 19-year veteran at the CDC and former senior vaccine safety scientist at the agency's Immunology Safety Office, is the co-author of four key studies that the CDC widely touts to exonerate the MMR vaccine and vaccines containing the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, from being linked to autism. Thompson is currently employed at the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.

In August 2014, Dr. Thompson revealed that the data underlying CDC's principle vaccine safety studies demonstrated a causal link between vaccines and autism or autism symptoms, despite CDC's claims to the contrary. According to Thompson, based upon interpretation of the data, "There is biologic plausibility right now to say that thimerosal causes autism-like features." Dr. Thompson invoked federal whistleblower protection in August 2014.

Dr. William Thompson is listed as author or co-author on the principal studies—Thompson, et al. 2007, Price, et al. 2010, Destefano, et al. 2004—most widely cited to "debunk" the link between autism and vaccines. Thompson said that his bosses, including the CDC's Immunization Safety Office Branch Chief Frank Destefano, specifically ordered him and three other CDC scientists to destroy data demonstrating vaccine induced autism in CDC's seminal 2004 study—Destefano, et al. 2004. The data unexpectedly showed a 250 percent increase in autism among young black males who received the vaccine on time—before their third birthday—compared to those who waited until after their third birthday. The data also showed a significant link between the vaccine and isolated autism (autism in normally developing children with no other medical problems), the kind suffered by Yates Hazlehurst, who is mentioned below. According to Thompson, Destefano called his four co-authors into a room and ordered them to dump the damning datasets into a giant garbage can. The published study omitted those data sets. That study, now cited in 91 subsequent papers on PubMed as proof of vaccine safety, is the principle foundation stone of the theology that vaccines don't cause autism.

In a series of taped statements, a deposition to Congressman William Posey of Florida and in statements issued through his personal attorney, Thompson confirmed that the data underlying the seminal 2004 Atlanta study, Destefano, et al. 2004, showed a causal association between MMR and autism for both African-American boys and for children suffering isolated autism. Thompson also asserted that CDC's leading thimerosal studies, rather than demonstrating thimerosal's safety, have consistently showed a causal relationship between thimerosal and tics, a family of grave neurological injuries that are a well-established feature of autism.

The medical malpractice case seeking Dr. Thompson's testimony is on behalf of 16-year-old Yates Hazlehurst. The lawsuit alleges that Yates is autistic as a result of vaccine injuries, which occurred when the vaccines were improperly administered in 2001. Because of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Act of 1986 (VICA), Hazlehurst v. The Jackson Clinic is the only vaccine injury case that has gone to any U.S. court in 30 years.

Under the VICA and the 2009 Supreme Court decision Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, almost all vaccine injured children are barred from filing lawsuits in state or federal courts. Instead, their only legal remedy is to seek compensation under VICA in the so called "vaccine court," the popular term which refers to the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which administers a no-fault system for litigating vaccine injury claims. There is no judge, no jury and the most basic rules of law do not apply.

However, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services subsequently admitted that during the Omnibus Autism Proceeding it secretly settled and sealed what potentially would have been one of the six test cases, Poling v. HHS after HHS conceded that the vaccines did indeed cause her autism. By conceding the Poling case and opposing the parents motion for complete transparency, HHS concealed critical evidence of how vaccines can cause autism.

Dr. Thompson wants to reveal the scientific fraud and destruction of evidence that took place in the studies that he co-authored. However, in accordance with the Whistle Blower Protection Act and other federal regulations, Dr. Thompson can not testify under oath without the permission of the director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Hazlehurst's attorneys, Smith and Kennedy, sought the permission of the CDC to allow Dr. Thompson to testify. The request on behalf of Hazlehurst specifically relates to the issue of causation, i.e. the issue of whether vaccines can cause autism, which the State of Tennessee Circuit Court Judge found to be both relevant and a proper basis for seeking the deposition of Dr. Thompson.

According to Kennedy, who argued before Tennessee Senior Circuit Court Judge William Acree that Dr. Thompson's testimony was necessary, "Yates, and almost 5,000 other vaccine injured autistic children, lost their cases in vaccine court because CDC and the Justice Department submitted fraudulent science wrongly denying the vaccine-autism link."

Kennedy explained that Dr. Thompson's testimony was necessary to explain details of the fraud. "Dr. Thompson will also rebut defense experts' testimony that Yates was not damaged because vaccines do not cause autism," Kennedy said.

Accepting the logic of Kennedy's argument, Judge Acree ordered on Feb. 5 that Dr. Thompson should be deposed. Following Judge's Acree's ruling, Smith filed a formal request to CDC to make Thompson available for deposition and trial testimony.

On Sept. 22, in a letter from CDC Director Thomas Freiden, CDC denied Smith's request. Smith explained that "this denial was a disappointment but not a surprise, since the inescapable implication of Dr. Thompson's testimony is that the agency fraudulently altered the science to undermine autism cases worth potentially $1 trillion in compensation ordered by Congress."

Smith and Kennedy plan to immediately appeal the CDC's denial to federal court.

"Since that original study data is only available from Dr. Thompson," Smith explained, "We are very confident that a federal judge will order CDC to make Thompson available."

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Alarming Levels of Mercury Contamination Found Across Western North America

An international team of scientists led by the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) released a comprehensive report last week showing widespread mercury contamination across western North America.

The report, based on decades of mercury data and research, found alarming levels of mercury and methylmercury in the forests, fishes, wildlife, plants and waterways of America's western landscapes. The USGS study provides the first integrated analysis of where mercury occurs in western North America, how it moves through the environment, and the processes that influence its movement and transfer to aquatic and ultimately, the human food chain.

Fish are indicators of methylmercury contamination because they are an important link in the food chain for both wildlife and humans.U.S. Forest Service

Among the many disturbing findings are shocking accumulations of mercury in densely forested areas such as those found along the Pacific mountain ranges of California and Oregon. The scientific team showed that these critical ecosystems collect dangerous mercury loads because they receive high amounts of precipitation. Rainfall washes mercury from the atmosphere onto wet forested regions where it binds to the vegetation and accumulates in the soils and surface waters. From these vectors it can bioaccumulate in fish, including salmon.

Vegetation patterns affect both soil moisture and the amount of sunlight that reaches the soil, two factors associated with mercury release from soils.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The report confirms the findings of a January 2016 study that narrowly investigated mercury levels in rainfall. That study reported that the long-term trend of decreasing mercury levels in precipitation had leveled off and that some sites in the western U.S. were experiencing increases, which the investigators concluded were due to exploding mercury emissions from Asia.

An earlier study in 2002 reported that industrial emissions in Asia are a major source of mercury in rainwater falling along the California coast. The new USGS study describes the precise atmospheric transport mechanisms that carry massive mercury contamination from Asia and deposit the potent neurotoxin in the water, soils and biota across America's West Coast. According to the papers lead author, it is not just the mercury itself, but a cocktail of atmospheric pollutants that contribute to the deposition of mercury in rainfall. Elemental mercury behaves as a gas in the atmosphere and is not washed out in rain until it has been oxidized into a charged ionic form that can be captured by water droplets.

The USGS study sheds light on earlier research with frightening human health implications. A 2008 study reported children living in areas of high precipitation may be more likely to have autism. Those investigators looked at rainfall in California, Washington and Oregon. That team obtained autism prevalence rates for children born in those three states between 1987 and 1999 and calculated average annual precipitation by county from 1987 to 2001. The researchers also computed the autism rates in relation to the average annual precipitation in the counties when the children were younger than 3 years old.

Those scientists found that counties that received relatively large amounts of precipitation had a relatively high rate of autism. More specifically, counties in Oregon and Washington west of the Cascades receive four times as much precipitation as counties east of the Cascades, and had an autism rate that was twice as high. These are the same states that were identified in the USGS's comprehensive report demonstrating the relationship between mercury deposition and precipitation.

The team also looked at each county over time, taking into account the varying annual precipitation levels. The study authors performed this analysis to rule out the effect of other factors, such as differences in the quality of the health care systems from one county to another. The relationship between precipitation and autism held.

Several earlier studies have established a potential connection between mercury from industrial air pollution and autism. In 2006 researchers in Texas reported that on average, for each 1,000 pounds of environmentally released mercury, there was a 43 percent increase in the rate of special education services and a 61 percent increase in the rate of autism. An investigation in the state of California found an association between autism and metal concentrations (mercury, cadmium, nickel, trichloroethylene) and possibly solvents (vinyl chloride).

These studies, however, concentrated on a few individual states. The latest study included women across the whole country. According to the first national study to investigate the possible link, living in an area with high levels of air pollution and mercury increased a woman's chances of having a child with autism.

"Women who were exposed to the highest levels of diesel or mercury in the air were twice as likely to have a child with autism than women who lived in the cleanest parts of the sample," according to the study author Andrea Roberts, a research associate with the Harvard School of Public Health.

Some researchers who first reported the correlation between high precipitation and high rates of autism, hypothesized that the link might be the result of children spending more time indoors where they generated less vitamin D or had increased exposures to household toxins. These reports gave little consideration to increased mercury exposure as a potential causative factor.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Methylmercury contamination in fish and birds is common in many areas throughout the West, and climate and land cover are some important factors influencing mercury contamination and availability to animals.
  • Fish and birds in many areas were found to have mercury concentrations above levels that have been associated with toxic effects.
  • Patterns of methylmercury exposure in fish and wildlife across the West differed from patterns of inorganic mercury on the landscape.
  • Some ecosystems and species are more sensitive to mercury contamination, and local environmental conditions are important factors influencing the creation and transfer of methylmercury through the food web.
  • Forest soils typically contain more inorganic mercury than soils in semi-arid environments, yet the highest levels of methylmercury in fish and wildlife occurred in semi-arid areas.
  • Vegetation patterns strongly influence the amount of mercury emitted to the atmosphere from soils.
  • Forested areas retain mercury from the atmosphere, whereas less vegetated areas tend to release mercury to the atmosphere.
  • Land disturbances, such as urban development, agriculture, and wildfires, are important factors in releasing inorganic mercury from the landscape, potentially making it available for biological uptake
  • Land and water management activities can strongly influence how methylmercury is created and transferred to fish, wildlife, and humans.
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