The Autism Factory (or, the canaries in the coal power plant)


What are mercury and methylmercury?

Mercury is an element that occurs naturally in the environment and is also released to the environment through many types of human activity. It can collect in streams, lakes, and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water or sediment. It is this type of mercury that is present in fish. Methylmercury can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is exposed to too much of it over time. -U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat. A typical uncontrolled coal plants emits approximately 170 pounds of mercury each year. Activated carbon injection technology can reduce mercury emissions by up to 90 percent when combined with baghouses. ACI technology is currently found on just 8 percent of the U.S. coal fleet. -U.S. Energy Information Administration

I grew up next to a coal power plant. When we were little girls my sister told me it was a cloud factory and I believed her. I believed the white fluffy plumes of steam coming out continuously were actually beautiful clouds drifting up to the sky. The kind of clouds you lie on the grass and watch and try to see what it looks like. A dog, a car, a dragon. The kind of thing you do when you're a kid growing up in the country. Running around outside, walking barefoot down the road to your grandma's house to go swimming, riding bikes and building forts and picking wild blackberries warm from the sun to squish under your tongue.

But it wasn't a cloud factory. It was (and is) consistently in the top 20 coal power plants in the nation for emissions of toxic metals. It produces over 800 pounds of mercury emissions each year. Into the air, into the water, into the land and all that live off it.

I have referred to it as the autism factory for twelve years. I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome (high functioning autism) in 2003. It just so happened I was also at that time involved in history research looking at the harm the coal companies had done to my home county with their very intentional destruction of the local environment and economy for personal gain. In 2005 a study came out showing that the closer one lived to a coal power plant, the higher the rates of autism.

My first son had been born June 8, 2004. My beautiful perfect baby boy. Our first baby. My parents' first grandchild. We were so excited. I had visions of holding him, nursing him, making him cute little home sewn baby kimonos from a pattern in Martha Stewart Living. As the saying goes, life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. Our path was very different.

A 6 days old we got a call from his pediatrician. On a Sunday. Doctors do not call with good news on a Sunday. He was calling because our son had tested positive for a rare metabolic disorder called galactosemia on a standard screening test done on all newborns in the hospital (thanks to some fierce parent advocates who fought for the policy). We saw specialists at Children's Hospital the next morning and found out he had a problem that had nothing to do with his galactosemia.

Our baby received diagnosis after diagnosis over the coming months and years. No one could tell us why he had so many problems. They tested and tested. Specialist after specialist. Big brain MD PhD after big brain MD PhD. No answers.

I knew though. I knew it was the power plant. Other girls I'd gone to high school with were having babies with deformities and rare health problems. I knew it in my gut. Then, the study came out in 2005 and my gut was confirmed. It made my baby sick. It gave me autism and filled my body with mercury. My womb hurt my baby.

From then on out, when I drove home for visits, I called it the autism factory and flipped it off. The only recourse I would ever have, most likely.

Since then, study after study after study has confirmed it. University of Texas 2008. Harvard 2014. Harvard 2015.

Pregnant women are cautioned to limit their consumption of fish because of the high mercury content. Where is that mercury coming from? Coal power plant emissions.

The economy in rural western Pennsylvania has been crumbling for 40 years. But the truth is, it was never that great to begin with. It was coal companies exploiting immigrants, building up shoddy towns without badly needed infrastructure, purposely polluting the local water. On again off again coal jobs. Union crushing. And when it suited their bottom line, they left. And yet, people insist on talking about the good old days. They clamor to keep the power plants open. Never being told it is those power plants that have given their grandchildren autism and so many other problems.

Will you sell your soul to gain the whole world, for a job?

The people of rural western Pennsylvania (and everywhere else for that matter) deserve to know the truth. Coal power must come to an end. We cannot go on supporting self-serving politicians claiming they are helping us by expanding coal power plants and pulling back on emission standards.

It will not make a difference for me or my children. Maybe not my grandchildren either. But it will for those to come. And it will be justice.

My blood work shows the damage mercury has done my body. My baby boys' too.

Their brains were hurt by these plants. My oldest son's optic nerves too. He will always be legally blind. My babies will never fully recover their neurologic function (although I'll keep fighting like hell). Damage has been done in the name of profit, in the name of greed.

We spent our childhood playing in the woods, chasing butterflies, building dams in the creeks. Drinking water from the creeks with straws on hot summer days. Mom said we could. We thought it was so cool. We were innocent. The men running the coal companies churning mercury into those creeks were not. I hope it was worth it to them. They sold their souls and the bodies of our children too.

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