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Friday, February 25, 2005

A Mercury Muddle

By Melissa Ross
First Coast News

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL -- A bright, bubbly child, articulate and well-behaved, with a shock of red hair and adorable freckles, six-year-old Grant Walchle may remind people old enough to remember of Ron Howard's precocious "Opie" from an Andy Griffith rerun.

Looking at Grant, it's hard to believe he was diagnosed several years ago along the autism spectrum. "We couldn't take him anywhere," says his mother, Marie. "There were times I would almost call his behavior psychotic."

Grant has improved greatly, thanks to a special diet that includes no wheat or dairy products, along with special supplements and behavioral therapy.

"But his biggest problem," says his mother, "is mercury."

Mercury, that toxic metal at the center of the raging autism debate. What causes the disorder, now said to affect 1 in every 166 American children?

Many parents believe their kids' autism is actually mercury poisoning, in the form of routine vaccinations that until recently contained the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. Mercury exposure has been linked in some studies to neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Government officials and many mainstream scientists and physicians adamantly deny a link, saying no study has definitively settled the issue. Several wide-ranging epidemiological studies focusing on thimerosal have found no link to autism.

But parents like Walchle, armed with charts of their children’s' blood work showing their bodies harbor high heavy metal levels, are turning to new, often expensive, biomedical treatments. Some are controversial. Grant is about to start undergoing chelation therapy, which will strip the mercury from his system.

As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, officials at drug maker Merck and Co., Inc., knew as early as 1991 that thimerosal had the potential to harm. An internal memo leaked to the Times expressed alarm that babies were being exposed to dangerously high mercury levels. The memo notes some babies were being injected with mercury "up to 87 times higher than guidelines for the maximum daily consumption of mercury from fish."

New York Times contributor David Kirby wades directly into the mercury muddle with his new book, "Evidence of Harm," which explores the potential role of the substance in the autism epidemic.

In an interview with First Coast News, Kirby said it's important to get to the bottom of the debate once and for all. "I'm not saying thimerosal causes autism. I'm saying there's evidence to suggest it might."

Politicians are weighing in, too, and here the tale gets even murkier. California and Iowa have already passed thimerosal bans, and nine other states are considering similar legislation.

But those bills might be made null and void by Congress. Lawmakers are now considering Senate Bill 3, which is titled "Protecting America in the War On Terror Act of 2005."

The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, would increase death benefits for the families of soldiers in Iraq. But according to Jacksonville attorney Alan Pickert, it would also provide sweeping protection to pharmaceutical companies and the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

Pickert is representing several dozen First Coast families who are petitioning the government for compensation over thimerosal.

"This bill would deny them any recourse in state or federal court," Pickert says. "How are we protecting America in the war on terror when we can't even protect our own kids?"

As the battle rages in the halls of science and Congress, parents are waging war on another front - fighting to bring their kids back from autism. More and more, they're succeeding.

"My son is a completely different child today," says Marie Walchle. "My hope is to let parents out there know that there is treatment available."

Created: 2/25/2005 7:01:32 PM
Updated: 3/1/2005 2:16:29 PM
Edited by Melissa Ross, Reporter
© 2004-2005 First Coast News

Posted by Becca

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