I was patiently awaiting Harvey Karp’s 3rd article on autism because I was really ready to rip into him for some crazy endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) theory, but somehow I missed the article totally. He put it out on the 30th of June and here I am half a month later just getting to it. And I thought the piece well-written and presented what Dr. Karp thinks could be a possible explanation for autism rates in the US.
It is true that EDCs are increasingly linked with disease in animal models which should give us some reason to pause and consider their effect on the human population. Dr. Karp specifically mentions fire retardants, pthalates, and the hot new buzz chemical of the day, BPA.
Dr. Karp put together a well-reasoned hypothesis to describe how the actions of EDCs could possibly cause autism. But the problem with science is that sometimes the most reasonable explanation isn’t the right one. Dr. Karp is going about this backwards, he is a pediatrician with over 30 years of experience and works at one of the largest research centers in the world, UCLA. There is no reason for him to come out in the public and scare the crap out of a bunch of parents without conducting experiments and getting data. That is how it is supposed to work, posit a hypothesis, test, warn the public. If every scientist was out throwing his pet philosophy onto the huffington post we would be inundated with hypotheses that turn out false and a whole heap-of-scare the likes of which haven’t been seen since Darth Va…excuse me, Dick Cheney was the PR machine.
Tim Kreider’s comment on White Coat Underground says it best:
“Hypothesizing a specific environmental cause or risk factor for autism is reasonable. Performing studies to investigate it is appropriate. Engaging the research community in analysis of the work is terrific. However, publicizing a pet theory in the lay press before it is supported by rigorous evidence borders on irresponsible. There are social and economic consequences for false alarms. It is probably safest for physicians to keep their public comments grounded in scientific consensus, since few in the press or the public will look for follow-ups on a daring new hypothesis after more research has been done.”
To see some interesting thoughts about EDCs and their role in human disease you can check out “The Disappearing Male” from the CBC, a documentary available free on their website discussing how the male reproductive system is at threat from EDCs. I agree with almost all of what they say but I’m never a fan of the “end of the species” scare tactics (it’s going to take a lot to end our species and I don’t think this will be the reason).