From DNA to Politics

Last week, the New York Times reported that researchers found that the risk of autism is associated with certain DNA variants. The article used the word “mutations” in its title, presumably to conjure the horrors of a 1950s science fiction movie. Early on the article says, “Scientists have been debating the relative influence of inherited risk and environmental factors in autism for decades, and few today doubt that there is a strong genetic component.”

The focus of attention was the occurrence of variations in the DNA sequence of specific genes present in some people with autism but absent from people without autism. These variations “are not inherited but occur spontaneously near or during conception.”

Doesn’t that sound as though some environmental assault has affected the germ tissue of the parents? Doesn’t that negate the notion that autism has a “strong genetic component?”

Of course, that’s not the question these researchers were asking. But even staying in the DNA ballpark, if the variant makes the child susceptible to the disorder and the variant isn’t inherited but caused at conception or during early development, shouldn’t they ask about the DNA of the parents?

And what goes begging is the obvious question: what in the parents’ environment would cause the difference in the gene’s DNA sequence?

If the purpose of this kind of research is to identify what can be done to prevent and treat autism, this exercise in DNA determinism seems a cruel half-step: identifying the artifact of an environmental assault without identifying the assailant itself.

This article sparked a discussion on the Collaborative on Health and Environment’s EMF listserv. Cindy Sage eloquently pointed out that the context for this research is that rates of autism are increasing, pointing to changes in our environment. She then goes on to describe the known effects of non-ionizing radiation on development before and after birth, with 42 citations.

Blake Levitt then commented that the practice of using ultrasound to examine a fetus might also be implicated because the technology has changed in the last decade. She too cites research that indicates ultrasound exposures damage developing tissues.

The DNA researchers, of course, did not take this research into account. Non-ionizing radiation from wireless technologies is not accepted as a respectable environmental exposure in most research. But even exposures that are more or less respectable—such as endocrine disrupting chemicals and nutrient imbalances and deficiencies—were not considered. The only thing that came close was the age of the parents—which suggested that older parents are at greater risk of having an autistic child.

Beyond speculations about which exposures affect the risk of autism there is the context in which the risk of exposure itself occurs. Acknowledging that some people will be more at risk than others in a given environment, what (and who) determines what’s in that environment?

For example, a recent study found that a mother’s metabolic condition (specifically, body mass and blood sugar control) affects the risk of autism and other neurological conditions for her child. The increase in the metabolic disruptions that we see as the so-called obesity and diabetes epidemics has been associated with the rise of obesogens (endocrine disrupting chemicals such as pesticides). Bisphenol A is such a chemical. The Food and Drug Administration is studying the use of BPA in food packaging. The process has been going on for over 4 years. The FDA has promised to make a decision about BPA soon.

So we have these elements to the story: DNA, developing tissues, mother’s health, environmental exposures, and political environment.

The causal chain for autism (or most other conditions for that matter) doesn’t start with DNA and cascade up through cells to tissues to organs to the person whose health is damaged. It is not a consequence of fate from a genetic curse. It is a consequence of a particular set of biological relationships—call it a system, call it an ecology—with DNA and politics as only two of the critical elements that make it a living whole that promotes or prevents metabolic damage or neurological damage or any of the other conditions that plague us.