Debra Jopson October 4, 2010
A researcher who has found strong evidence that autism is caused by mercury poisoning has been refused access to data that could point to emissions from coal-fired power stations.
The director of the Swinburne Autism Bio-Research Initiative, David Austin, said the data on autism incidence by postcode could quickly answer the question of whether mercury emissions from power stations are implicated in babies and infants developing the disorder.
When Professor Austin requested the information after a review of international scientific literature confirmed ''a mercury-autism relationship'', the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs said it could not be released on privacy grounds.
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''It's a fairly easy study to do and yet it is so important. We are keen to do it as quickly as possible in Australia because we are a big coal-burner,'' said Professor Austin.
''If the information says there is no link, then we can go forward comfortably. If the answer is yes, there can't be much more important information than knowing the way structures in our society work like how power generators are impacting on our grandchildren.''
The department rejected Professor Austin's request while the government was in caretaker mode and he has now called on the federal minister, Jenny Macklin, to override her department.
Researchers could have a full report ready within 12 months once they got the data, Professor Austin said. It would be easy to compare autism statistics from Tasmania, where there are no coal-fired power stations, with areas such as the Hunter Valley, where there are, he said.
''We are very lucky that we collect good data as a nation on this, so we have a good idea of autism rates available on the Centrelink database. The government privacy issues shouldn't be viewed as such an impassable obstacle when such a big thing is at stake,'' he said.
Professor Austin's research has already found elevated levels of porphyrins, a marker for mercury damage, in the urine of Australian autistic children.
A University of Texas study two years ago found a statistically significant link between the amount of mercury released from industrial sources such as coal-fired power stations and increased autism rates.
The prevalence of autism in the community reduced by 1-2 per cent every 16 kilometres of distance from the pollution source, it concluded.
''There is already major concern in the Hunter around respiratory concerns, but the US research suggests it may go beyond to neurological and developmental implications and I can't think of a more important question for research if that is so,'' Professor Austin said.
Calling for the information's release, a NSW Greens MP, John Kaye, said the number of children with autism in NSW government schools grew from 2267 to 5995 between 2003 and 2009, a jump of 165 per cent.
''Coal-fired power plants are responsible for approximately one-third of all mercury emissions attributable to human activity,'' he said.
A department spokeswoman said that under government protocols, data referring to fewer than 20 individuals would not be released to protect privacy.
''Professor Austin asked for specific data by postcode. Most of this data would refer to less than 20 individuals,'' she said.