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The Tribune leads the way on autism coverage

Posted Jan 19 2010 11:24am

The story sounds too lurid to be true – ignoring FDA regulations, a retired chemistry professor takes a chemical used to treat toxic waste,  and repackages it as a dietary supplement for disabled children. Welcome to the world of autism quackery.

The story in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune is the latest in a year-long investigation into America’s anti-vaccine movement, and its spin-off treatment industries. Last May the newspaper introduced us to a Maryland physician who purports to treat autism with Lupron, a powerful castration drug also used to treat sex offenders. In November, reporters Trine Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan showed how alternative practitioners misrepresent legitimate science, and use phony lab results, to push quack autism treatments. “There is a whole industry that preys on people’s fears of heavy metal poisoning,” said Dr. Carl R. Baum, director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Toxicology at Yale- New Haven Children’s Hospital, something that comes as no surprise to the nation’s 60,000 pediatricians.

The latest story introduces us to Prof. Boyd Haley, a retired former head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky, and a micro-celebrity in the vaccine-rejection community. His wonder-drug, called OSR#1, was first formulated as an industrial chemical that separates heavy metals from polluted soil and mining drainage. Haley first repurposed the chemical as a chelating agent for treating autism, but when FDA approval was not forthcoming, he rebranded OSR as a nutritional supplement. Only one problem – the FDA says food supplements must be, uh, edible.

No wonder Haley runs from publicity he can’t control.

Federal law requires manufacturers to explain why a new dietary ingredient reasonably can be expected to be safe. The Food and Drug Administration told the Tribune that Haley had not submitted sufficient information.

In an interview, Haley said that the compound had been tested on rats and that a food safety study was conducted on 10 people. Asked to provide documentation of the studies, he stopped communicating with the Tribune.

Experts expressed dismay upon hearing children were consuming a chemical not evaluated in formal clinical trials for safety, as would be required for a drug prescribed by doctors.

Ellen Silbergeld, an expert in environmental health and a researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health studying mercury and autism at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she found the sale of the chemical as a supplement for children “appalling.”

“I would worry a lot about giving anything to a small child that hasn’t been scrutinized for both safety and efficacy by the FDA,” said antioxidant expert Dr. L. Jackson Roberts, a pharmacologist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

The anti-vaccine movement has long relied on message control to convince parents that vaccines were more risky than the diseases they protect us against, and for too long credulous editors and reporters obliged with dutiful stenography and false balance. The Tribune’s coverage shows us that those days are numbered.

Cross-posted at AutismNewsBeat.com

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