Thanks to the resurgence of measles in several major U.S. cities — a phenomenon that health officials attribute to a small number of people who claim “philosophical objections” to vaccination — conspiracy theories about vaccines are back in the news. That’s landed Jenny McCarthy right back in the headlines, too, since the actress and model is the most prominent celebrity spokesperson for inaccurate myths about vaccines’ safety. McCarthy says her son’s autism was caused by getting the shot that’s intended to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).
The MMR vaccine doesn’t actually have any link to autism, and neither do any other types of childhood vaccines. By this point, the doctor who first put forth that theory has been widely discredited. Nonetheless, the conspiracy has firmly hung on. Just last week, a few other celebrities — former reality TV show star Kristin Cavallari and her husband, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler — repeated those claims about autism to explain why they don’t plan to vaccinate their children.
It’s understandable that parents would want to do everything in their power to protect their kids from harm. But if celebrities like McCarthy and Cavallari are worried about preventing autism, their activism is focused in entirely the wrong area. Even worse, it’s unhelpfully diverting attention from public health issues that need more investment.
We don’t know everything about autism, but research in this area continues to advance. Most experts believe that autism is caused by some combination of genetic and environmental factors that varies from one child to another. Over the past several years, we’ve learned more about just how influential those environmental factors can be.
A large study published this month, which relies on the data from 100 million medical records here in the U.S., found a significant association between autism and “harmful environmental factors.” University of Chicago researchers studied genital malformation in boys, a type of birth defect that’s already been linked to exposure to pesticides, and found a strong link with autism rates. A one percent increase in those defects corresponded to a 283 percent increase in autism.
“This gives an indicator of environmental load and the effect is surprisingly strong,” Andrey Rzhetsky, a professor of genetic medicine and human genetics and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. Rzhetsky wants to use data from the Environmental Protection Agency to do follow-up research into the potential link between autism and toxins.
Rzhetsky’s study adds to a growing body of research that suggests the environment could play some sort of a role in autism rates. Previous work in this field has found that kids who live in areas with high pollution rates are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. Kids with autism are more likely to have been born to a mother who lives with 1,000 feet of a freeway, and tend to have unusually high levels of exposure to air-pollutant chemicals. Researchers are quick to clarify that this doesn’t mean pollution single-handedly causes autism — it’s just one of the complex factors that can contribute to a kid’s risk of developing the disease, and something that should be investigated further.
Plenty of other evidence has already linked air pollution to a host of health issues, like heart damage and respiratory disease. This past fall, the World Health Organization officially classified it as a carcinogen. “The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” Kurt Straif, the head of the WHO department that ranks cancer-causing agents, explained at the time.
Americans are driving less and taking public transportation more, but it couldn’t hurt to have a celebrity like Jenny McCarthy throw her star power behind environmental causes like carpooling, biking, or taking the bus. That could have a tangible public health impact, rather than allowing conspiracy theories to overshadow the complicated issues at play when it comes to this disease.