Congressman Dan Burton: It is time to re-engage on the autism epidemic

25 Apr

Dan Burton is a U.S. Congressman, a legislator elected to represent the state of Indiana to the U.S. House of Representatives. Mr. Burton was once a frequent name in the discussion about autism. His grandson is autistic and Mr. Burton championed the idea that mercury, in specific the vaccine preservative thimerosal, was a possible cause of autism. Mr. Burton hosted congressional hearings on the matter which fueled the discussion. Much of this is documented in David Kirby’s 2005 book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy.

When Congressman Burton was holding meetings In the early 2000’s, there was not a great deal of scientific data on the idea that mercury could be behind an autism epidemic. There was correlation–autism prevalence estimates by various sources showed rising rates coincident with the increased exposure from infant vaccines during the 1990’s.

But this isn’t the early 2000’s. A lot has been learned since Mr. Burton held his hearings. And the knowledge gained points away from thimerosal as a cause if autism Mr. Burton himself is set to retire this year. Yesterday Mr. Burton wrote about his previous efforts and a new initiative he has proposed in a blog article: It is time to re-engage on the autism epidemic. And by epidemic, Mr. Burton appears to mean the failed mercury-induced-autism-epidemic. From his article:

Unfortunately, a great deal of misinformation has been thrown around in public and private about the Committee’s focus on mercury in medicines as a possible factor in the autism epidemic. I’m not a scientist, but the Committee heard from many credible scientists and experts who are convinced that mercury is a contributing factor; and the theory is no less worthy of exploration than the theories being propounded today that the pregnancy weight of the mother or the age of the father at conception influences whether a child becomes autistic. When you have no idea what is causing a disease, policymakers and scientists should never be afraid to investigate any plausible theory. In fact, researching possible environmental factors is a central component of today’s research on autism.

Mr. Burton’s attempt to compare the mercury hypothesis to recent results falls flat. For one thing, there is evidence that factors such as parental age may increase the risk of autism. Multiple studies indicate increased risk. On the other side, there is no real evidence to suggest that mercury increases the risk of autism, and a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

As already noted: a lot has been learned since Mr. Burton held his hearings 10 years ago. But today, as it was 10 years ago, scientists and policymakers are not afraid to investigate the hypothesis that mercury caused an autism epidemic. We’ve seen paper after paper come out of those efforts. Accepting results is not fear. Far from it.

Mr. Burton states:

The other issue we dealt with is how do we help the millions of individuals and families afflicted with this disease. Autism has no cure and it is not a life-threatening disease. That means that the autistic children of today will be the autistic adults and autistic seniors of tomorrow. Our nation is ill prepared to deal with the complex challenges posed by a generation of autistic individuals.

It strikes this reader that the leadership of the past, which certainly includes Congressman Burton, was afraid to tackle a basic question: what is an accurate count of the number of autistic adults? The autistic children of yesterday *are* the autistic adults of today. How many are there? What do their living conditions look like? What successes and failures can we learn from the lives of those autistics, and the way the rest of society supported them? What health issues are there for autistics as they age?

The sad fact is we don’t really know.

Some researchers in the U.S. have looked for, and found, misdiagnosed autistics in some populations. The U.S. has mounted a project to explore autism prevalence and other issues in older cohorts, but that work has just begun. Researchers in the U.K. have delved into the questions of adult prevalence and living conditions, five years ago.

The U.S. is ill prepared, and precisely because of the leadership Mr. Burton offered. Instead of accepting even the possibility that there were misdiagnosed or undiagnosed adult autistics, attention was focused on asking the same question again and again: is mercury behind the rise in autism prevalence? Time and again the answer came back no.

And, now, we are going to ask yet again. Mr. Burton mentions in his article a bill he sponsored: H.R. 3489: White House Conference on Autism Act of 2011. Yes, a bill from last year. It was introduced to committee on Nov. 18th of last year and has had no action since. In other words, a bill which is all but dead.

The bill calls for a conference. A meeting. To generate a report. The conference has no charge other than this. It is reminiscent of Mr. Burton’s hearings. People gathered. People were selected specifically to speak based on their views that mercury could cause autism. Reports were generated. This is action? Leadership?

Who will be a part of this conference? Mr. Burton’s bill spells out who should be a part of this committee:

(1) at least 1 shall be a parent or legal guardian of individuals with autism or other pervasive developmental disorders;

(2) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about autism intervention programs and systems, including complementary and alternative therapies;

(3) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about programs specifically designed to meet the unique educational needs of children and adults with autism;

(4) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about programs specifically designed to meet the unique housing needs of children and adults with autism;

(5) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about programs specifically designed to train and educate law enforcement and criminal justice officials to respond to the unique needs of children and adults with autism; and

(6) at least 1 other shall be knowledgeable about environmental or toxic exposure of adults and children as it relates to the development of autism.

A lot has changed since Mr. Burton held his first hearings on autism. One thing that has changed: autistics have rightfully fought for and won the right to be represented in autism discussions. Mr. Burton’s bill does not represent that shift.

Mr. Burton’s words do not acknowledge that the question of whether there was a mercury-induced-epidemic of autism has been answered.

Let’s put it simply. Mr. Burton: the answer is no. Thimerosal didn’t cause an autism epidemic.

22 Responses to “Congressman Dan Burton: It is time to re-engage on the autism epidemic”

  1. Neuroskeptic April 25, 2012 at 10:28 #

    “The theory is no less worthy of exploration than the theories being propounded today that the pregnancy weight of the mother or the age of the father at conception influences whether a child becomes autistic.”

    Indeed it is worthy of exploration. So worthy that it has already been explored and there was nothing there.

  2. Perry April 25, 2012 at 14:46 #

    Mr. Cary, there are 45 published, peer-reviewed papers that link mercury (mostly from vaccines) to autism. Your denying this research exists is absurd!

  3. Julian Frost April 25, 2012 at 14:53 #

    Perry, we’ve heard this claim before. Please post the PubMed IDs of the studies that link mercury to autism. In fact, mercury poisoning looks nothing like autism. Catherine Lord showed this in the Omnibus Autism Proceedings Test Cases.

  4. Perry April 25, 2012 at 15:40 #

    Catherine Lord is not a toxicologist. She’s a psychiatrist and a liar for hire. You can go to Pubmed yourself and type in “autism mercury”. You will find 174 papers. Put aside all the ghost written review articles. You will then be left with about 65 papers that generate original data. Over 75% support the link. This is a fact.

    • Sullivan April 25, 2012 at 16:01 #


      The “let’s count papers” argument wasn’t compelling when Catherine DeSoto put forth her paper a few years ago.

      The risk of autism from thimerosal has been studied. The risk is not higher with mercury exposure. Papers on chelation don’t change that. Papers by the Geiers make up a large fraction of your total. The fact that they have found journals to publish their litigation driven questionable science is not a strong argument for the mercury hypothesis.

    • Sullivan April 25, 2012 at 16:04 #


      Catherine Lord is not a toxicologist. She also is not the expert who testified at the omnibus on whether autism looks like mercury poisoning.

      Patricia Rodier did take on the “autism looks like mercury poisoning” idea. She *does* have expertise in mercury *and* autism.

  5. Julian Frost April 25, 2012 at 15:46 #

    Perry, you make the claim, YOU stump up the proof. PubMed ID and author. Oh, and calling somebody a liar for hire is libellous.

  6. Anthony's Dad April 25, 2012 at 19:15 #

    Look, it’s really this simple: there are lots of people in this world – for whatever reason, brain chemistry, psychological issues, whatever – who, when you SHOW them beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt, that they are wrong about something, will never, ever be able to admit it. A terribly dangerous attitude for a parent to have.

    Believe me, I lived with someone like that for a number of years, but now my beautiful, handsome autistic son no longer has to live under the influence of dangerous thinking like that.

    Sorry, just sick of it all. I understand that these people are finally being shoved out of the way when it comes to rational discourse on autism spectrum disorders, but it can’t happen soon enough for me. Life is too short.

  7. David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. April 25, 2012 at 22:20 #

    @Perry: “She’s a psychiatrist and a liar for hire.”




    She is a psychologist, not a psychiatrist.

    You can’t make that distinction, you can’t bloody read.

    Enough said.

    Just leave the clever talk to those of us who know what we’re talking about.

  8. brian April 26, 2012 at 03:04 #

    Mr. Burton’s previous version of this bill never made it out of committee in the 111th congress, and gives the current version as much as a 1% chance of passage since, after all, Burton is a member of the majority party.

  9. Julian Frost April 26, 2012 at 06:48 #

    Sorry Sullivan, my bad. I keep thinking that Lord was the expert on both mercury poisoning and autism. I need to make a note.

  10. lilady April 26, 2012 at 07:17 #

    Thanks for alerting us about Dan Burton’s “word” about the causes of autism…hey a girl can hope can’t she?

    I see that the Dachelbot is busy posting her usual inanities. Apparently, she has called out the usual suspects/troops for support.

    Dan Burton misused his office repeatedly to call congressional committees into session, because he actually believes his grandson was poisoned by a preservative in vaccines. No amount of public dollars or resources that have been spent to disprove Dan’s “theory” will ever convince him, or his sycophant devotees, that vaccines are safe.

    Good riddance, I say, to this pathetic excuse for a congressman.

  11. Neuroskeptic April 26, 2012 at 10:07 #

    Perry, even Mark & David Geier no longer seem to believe in their own mercury-autism work: They just wrote a review paper about autism, and didn’t mention it.

    It’s over. I’m sorry. Well, I’m not, but you know what I mean.

  12. AutismNewsBeat April 26, 2012 at 17:35 #

    Rep. Burton once shot a pumpkin to prove Bill Clinton murdered Vince Foster. Good times.

    • Sullivan April 26, 2012 at 21:53 #

      A nice look into the past, from the Transcript of one of Burton’s hearings:

      Mr. Burton. Who funded your study, Dr. Wakefield?

      Dr. Wakefield. We did. We have a small charitable contribution, but—-

      Mr. Burton. A charitable organization did; I see.

      Dr. Wakefield. We found it a little difficult to get funding—-

      Yes. Andrew Wakefield was asked directly who funded his study in 2001. This is before Brian Deer started looking into the details. Mr. Wakefield, “we did”. No mention of legal aid board funding.

      I guess Congressman Burton doesn’t mind a little “misdirection”.

  13. Science Mom April 26, 2012 at 22:58 #

    Oh come now Sullivan; Wakefield is a UK citizen and not beholden to U.S. perjury laws. (Snigger. As if that matters.)

    • Sullivan April 26, 2012 at 23:08 #

      Yeah, the swearing in was just a formality?

      We now welcome our second panel to the witness table. This panel consists of: Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who came all the way from merry old England, and we appreciate him being here; Professor John O’Leary, whom I am sure you will notice after he starts talking is from Ireland; Dr. Vijendra Singh, I appreciate you being here; Dr. Coleen Boyle, Dr. Paul Offit, and Dr. Brent Taylor.
      Would you all please rise and be sworn?
      [Witnesses sworn.]

      Somehow Congressman Burton didn’t extend the warm welcome or the “I appreciate you being here” to Coleen Boyle (CDC), Paul Offit or Brent Taylor.

      If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Taylor, stated clearly later in the hearing:

      “Mr. Wakefield and Professor O’Leary’s testimony notwithstanding, the belief that MMR is the cause of autism is a false hope.”

  14. Chris April 26, 2012 at 23:52 #

    Heh, heh, heh. Dr. Taylor was also at the Royal Free Hospital, and did the studies that Wakefield was offered but refused. I believe I have mentioned him here before:

    Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association.
    Taylor B, Miller E, Farrington CP, Petropoulos MC, Favot-Mayaud I, Li J, Waight PA.
    Lancet. 1999 Jun 12;353(9169):2026-9.

    Measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and bowel problems or developmental regression in children with autism: population study.
    Taylor B, Miller E, Lingam R, Andrews N, Simmons A, Stowe J.
    BMJ. 2002 Feb 16;324(7334):393-6.

  15. Turok April 27, 2012 at 02:32 #

    Perry you are a liar and a charlatan using the argument from numbers fallacy.

    As an ‘autistic’ (and that term is highly suspect with how liberally it is applied) the whole using of weak scientific papers to bash us around the head is getting real old real quick.

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  17. lilady October 23, 2012 at 15:56 #

    Spam alert above.


  1. We Need Congress to Convene Hearings on the Causes of Autism « Beyond Autism Awareness - May 1, 2012

    […] Congressman Dan Burton: It is time to re-engage on the autism epidemic ( Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in General, Public Service Announcements and tagged Autism, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Combating Autism Act, Dan Burton.Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment […]

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