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Wi-Fi and autism?

Tamara J. Mariea and George L. Carlo claim to have found

a significant role of EMR [electro-magnetic radiation] in both the etiology of Autism and the efficacy of therapeutic interventions. The mechanism of EMR impact could be direct by facilitating early clinical onset of symptoms or indirect, including trapping heavy metals in cells and both accelerating the onset of symptoms caused by heavy metal toxicity as well as impeding therapeutic clearance. These data also suggest that wireless device EMR is a synergen in the etiology of Autism, acting in conjunction with environmental and genetic factors, and offer a mechanistic explanation for the correlation between concurrent increases in the incidence of Autism and the use of wireless technology.

In case that wasn't clear: Mariea and Carlo claim that Wi-Fi is a significant causal factor in the development of autism and it interferes with the treatment of autism. Carlo raised the alarm on cell phones causing brain tumors when he appeared on ABC's "20/20" in 1999.* He contradicted the conclusions of most other researchers in the field at the time and the consensus still is that cell phones are not causing brain tumors. His view on wi-fi and autism should be taken with a grain of salt until other, more reliable, researchers find evidence of such a connection.

Also, it should be noted that Carlo and Mariea are part of a group that calls itself The Safe Wireless Initiative, a group dedicated to spreading the word about the dangers of EMR. We should be a bit skeptical of researchers who set out to prove a pet belief, rather than test a hypothesis.

Carlo's article was published in the Journal of the   Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine (ACNEM) [Vol. 26 No.2 (August 2007), pages 3-7]. The college is an independent, non-profit,  post-graduate medical college devoted to the promotion and study of "nutritional and environmental medicine," which it defines as:

the study of the interactions of both nutritional and environmental factors with human physiology, biochemistry, pathology and anatomy and the clinical application of these interactions in the optimisation of health and the prevention and treatment of disease. This may involve the removal of certain foods or chemicals from the patient's environment, the use of rotation diets and the provision of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and essential fatty acids or other nutritional supplements. Excesses or deficiencies of any nutrient or the presence of basic chemicals or electromagnetic radiation results in cellular dysfunction and illness.

The QuackWatch folks might be a bit suspicious of this college since it advocates analyzing hair for minerals and heavy metals.

Proponents of hair analysis claim that it is useful for evaluating a person's general state of nutrition and health and is valuable in detecting predisposition to disease. They also claim that hair analysis enables a doctor to determine if mineral deficiency, mineral imbalance or heavy metal pollutants in the body may be the cause of a patient's symptoms. These claims are false. (Barrett 2006)

Another reason to be cautious with Carlo's work is that he claims that

There is a general consensus emerging among clinicians that first level treatment regimens for Autistic patients should include heavy metal detoxification.

Since there is no general consensus regarding the cause or causes of autism, it is extremely unlikely that there is a general consensus on the treatment. Some think diet is important and the first line of treatment they recommend is to avoid certain kinds of foods. Others, like Carlo, believe heavy metals are important and they recommend chelation therapy. Most think the genetic component is most important. What might be true is that clinicians at the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine believe that heavy metals are a significant causal factor in the development of autism and that heavy metal detoxification should be one of the first things tried in treatment. But it is false to claim that this treatment is emerging among clinicians as the first course of action. In fact, the idea that heavy metals are a significant causal factor in the development of autism is not the view of mainstream researchers in the field. It is the view of a number of parents of autistic children and is considered a fringe view by most in the field.* In fact, Dr. Roy E. Kerry is facing manslaughter charges for chelating a 5-year-old autistic boy who died after the treatment. Kerry is also being sued by the parents and faces disciplinary action from the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine.

Carlo's study is based on several questionable assumptions. One, Carlo assumes that heavy metal toxicity is involved in autism. Two, he assumes that heavy metal detoxification is the proper therapy for children with autism. Three, he assumes cell phones are significant causal factors in brain tumors, bird and bee colony collapses, and autism. This last assumption seems to be based on two things: a correlation between a perceived increased incidence of autism and use of wireless technology, and a belief that EMR prevents cells in the human body from getting rid of heavy metals. Carlo writes:

Concurrent with the increased incidence of Autism and its quixotic clinical challenges, have been the dramatic increase in general population usage of mobile telephones and wireless communication devices. Between 1998 and 2007, wireless technology usage has increased from 200 million worldwide to more than 3 billion. Recent environmental impact data regarding migratory birds and honey bee colony collapses suggest that the background concentrations of wireless technology related electro-magnetic radiation (EMR) are reaching saturation points where exposures can not be avoided in most populated areas. The concern here is that increasingly high ambient exposures to EMR over the past decade portend in utero, post-natal and early childhood exposures that are unabated or for which normal physiologic compensatory mechanisms are inadequate.

The general consensus, however, is that there has not been a dramatic increase in autism. If you look hard enough, you will find quite a few interesting correlations with the rise in the prevalence of autism (diagnosis and recognition), none of which would indicate a causal relationship. Also, I'd like to see the evidence that nearly half the people on the planet are using wireless communication devices. [The CIA. estimates there are over 2 billion cell phones out there; so, if you include garage door openers, you might well have in excess of 3 billion wireless devices in use at some time during each lovely day on our planet.]

The main reason for not paying much attention to Mariea's and Carlo's study is that it is very poorly designed. It uses no controls and was not blinded. Also, their claim that Wi-Fi causes autism by trapping heavy metals in cells is in no way supported by their study, which allegedly measured the amount and speed of "heavy metal clearance" "in an EMR-free environment." The latter was defined as their building where there are no Wi-Fi devices and cell phones are not allowed. The authors write:

If heavier metals clear later in the treatment process, that evidences a time-dependent opening of the cell membrane active transport channels following elimination of EMR in the subject’s environment. Such a finding would also support the hypothesis that EMR was a factor in closing the active transport channels at the outset in these patients.

Or not. They have no controls, so we don't know what any of their data mean in general. Also, one might question their notion of an "EMR-free environment." I've been in buildings that don't have Wi-Fi but I was able to connect to wireless located in another building nearby. A company that wanted to install wi-fi on a water tower in my town claimed that their signal traveled for three miles. I assume that signal will go into your building regardless of whether you have a receiver. There may be no cell phones in your building but that does not seem make your building "EMR-free." If you have lights in your building, you do not have an EMR-free environment. Maybe they're in a Faraday cage. Maybe they work in the dark.

For more on what people are saying about this study, see CrunchGear.com

Robert T. Carroll

November 25, 2007.

further reading

Carlo, George L. and Tamara J. Mariea. (2007). "Wireless Radiation in the Etiology and Treatment of Autism: Clinical Observations and Mechanisms," Journal of Australasian College of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine, Vol. 26 No.2 (August), pages 3-7.

Judelsohn, Richard G. (2007). "Vaccine Safety: Vaccines Are One of Public Health's Great Accomplishments." Skeptical Inquirer. November/December.

Norman, Matthew and Jesse Dallery. (2007). "Mercury Rising: Exploring the Vaccine-Autism Myth." Skeptic. vol. 13 num 3.

Novella, Steven. (2007). "The Anti-Vaccination Movement." Skeptical Inquirer. November/December.

Radford, Benjamin. (2007). An Interview with Roy Richard Grinker. Skeptical Inquirer. Vol 31, issue 6, November/December.


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