Dear Jenny McCarthy and Bill McKibben: Coal Plants are causing Autism, Let’s Sue Them!

The situation comedy actress Jenny McCarthy has done great damage to public health by her wrong-headed thesis that vaccines cause autism. This is not true, as much research has confirmed. But now we have a scientific study that shows what really is causing the autism epidemic: exposure of the mother when she is pregnant to mercury, cadmium, diesel and other toxic elements in the air. In fact, women exposed to these elements are twice as likely to have an autistic child as women in low-pollution areas. The scientific paper is here.

Air pollution causes autism. Moreover, mercury in the air is even more highly associated with autism than the other poisons in the air. Mercury is a nerve poison that drives you crazy if you are regularly exposed to enough of it. The figure of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland comes from the Victorian era, when hat makers smoothed down felt (compressed wool) with mercury, with their bare fingers. After a while, they were looney tunes.

Now, you ask, why is there mercury in the air in some parts of the country? Mercury doesn’t just naturally float into the air we breath. It is in the main coming from coal plants. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency has for a long time given them a pass on this kind of pollution. Although 25 plants are the most egregious sinners in this regard, almost all coal plants emit some mercury. The mercury not only gets into the air but also into our water, becoming concentrated in fish and making us sick that way too. I suggest a follow-up study of women who both live in coal-pollution zones and eat fish during pregnancy.

Now, why have I paired up Jenny McCarthy with environmentalist Bill McKibben? It is because the founder of 350.org is among the more effective organizers for reducing the carbon pollution that is destroying our climate. He has been encouraging student assemblies on campus to vote to divest university investment funds from oil, gas and coal companies.

The problem is that carbon dioxide pollution is a tricky issue for the EPA, though there has been some progress in that regard. But the Sierra Club has been suing coal plants over their other kinds of pollution, with some success.

So here is something for McKibben, the Sierra Club and other environmentalists to consider: How about organizing families who live in coal pollution zones and whose children were therefore stricken with autism to launch class action suits against the coal companies. We could roll back a major public health problem (mercury and other poisons in the atmosphere that blight the lives of 1 in 50 children!) and also wipe 200 billion metric tons of CO2 a year off our ledger.

The 600 coal plants in the US are responsible for 40% of our our 500 billion metric tons of carbon emissions annually, that is, for 200 billion metric tons. We could meet international targets of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C. if we closed all of them over the next ten years and if we used our international financial muscle into pressuring China and India to close theirs (we are not shy about strong-arm tactics against Iranian oil, so why can’t coal be targeted?)

I wrote on Earth Day:

Dirty coal is killing us and killing the earth. Here is a short documentary.

Coal plants produce a lion’s share of carbon dioxide poisoning of the atmosphere, causing rapid global warming. In the case of the US, they are responsible for fully 40% of our CO2 emissions.

The single most important thing you can do for the earth is call your utility company and pressure them not to use coal, and lobby your city to develop its own solar installations, and put solar panels on your roof.

Close all the 600 coal plants in the United States and you’d dramatically reduce our 500 billion metric tons a year of CO2 emissions. (The supposed good news that our emissions have fallen from 6 to 5 billion metric tons annually is laughable, since 3, 4, or 5 billion tons a year will still radically alter the earth. We need to get it down to sustainable levels and hydrocarbons like natural gas cannot do that!)

9 Responses

  1. Getting down to sustainable levels of carbon emissions is a multi-step process, and using natural gas to replace coal is step one of that process.

    Leaving out natural gas means the coal plants stay open for a decade or two longer, until solar and wind can be ramped up to sufficient levels.

    We don’t have that decade or two.

    • There is only a slight social cost in going straight to solar and wind, which are grid parity in many markets. We don’t need the gas, Joe, and it only cuts C02 in half, which isn’t good enough. Moreover, there are still questions about methane leakage, which would put it on a par with coal.

      Here in Michigan, we just need to build the grid out to the northern Lake Michigan coast and put a couple thousand new large wind turbines. Could be done tout suite.

      Keep the gas in the ground.

      • I don’t disagree about the cost of switching to renewables. The issue I brought up was the timing of phasing them in, and what to do in the meantime.

        You say there are “still questions” about the leakage; are there “questions” about the emissions from the coal plants that would operate in the place of gas? We have a lot more than “questions” about the consequences of keeping the coal plants open; we have, instead, many thousands of absolute, for-certain deaths. You seem very concerned about deaths from coal plants – right up until the point where reducing them involves doing something that doesn’t jibe with your ideological preferences.

        You write every day on this blog about the world-shattering significance of a 20 mega-watt solar plant here and a 10 mega-watt wind installation there, but you’re going to waive away “cutting carbon emissions in half with “only?” Cutting carbon emissions from coal plants “only” in half would mean a net reduction of total American carbon output by 20%!

        To put your “only,” “not nearly good enough,” “1billion metric tons is laughable” comments into perspective: the Keystone XL pipeline, if built, is projected to increase carbon emissions by 19 million (with an m) tons per year. That represents less than 1/50th of 1 billion (with a b) tons – yet you use terms like “game over” to describe the pipeline, while waiving away the world’s largest reduction in carbon emissions, which is more than fifty times larger.

        This is not the behavior of someone who is serious about reducing carbon emissions.

        Here in Michigan, we just need to build the grid out to the northern Lake Michigan coast and put a couple thousand new large wind turbines. Could be done tout suite.

        Sure, throw a cooler in the truck, we’ll knock those bad boys out this weekend. Tout suite. No problem. Are you serious with this?

        • There are many real-world examples of states and countries getting 15% and 20% from renewables in just 6 or 7 years. Iowa, e.g. Or Portugal (and no, the *increases* there are not from hydro).

          In much of the US that would cut coal by half in that period. Solar and wind are falling in price so fast that getting rid of the rest of the plants in the following 3-4 years would be entirely feasible.

          The Great Lakes are estimated to have 700 gigawatts wind energy generation potential.

          link to mlive.com

          Michigan wind projects now in train, when they come to fruition, will generate 3 gigawatts:

          link to nrdc.org

          The problems here are not technical. They are a matter of political will and willingness to pass the right legislation and spend a little public money now (miniscule amounts) rather than a lot of public money later.

          And, sure I am cheerleading. You can’t touch the clouds unless you reach for the stars.

        • There are many real-world examples of states and countries getting 15% and 20% from renewables in just 6 or 7 years.

          Sure there are, and I don’t question that plucking the lowest-hanging fruits could bring about a similar-sized shift in the United States, but the next 15% will be harder, and the subsequent 15% harder still. But even if we were to assume that this rate of increase would remain steady, a rate of switching over 20% every six years still puts the complete switchover on a 30-year timeline. In 15 years, when (optimistically) half the capacity in the US is shifted over to renewables, do you want coal power providing a large part of the other half, or not?

          I vote “not.” You?

          Solar and wind are falling in price so fast that getting rid of the rest of the plants in the following 3-4 years would be entirely feasible.

          Your reasoning here is unsound: the falling cost of solar and wind energy does not make the logistical problem of getting all of that capacity up and running any easier. More affordable, yes, but we still have to build everything, and that takes time. You don’t need to convince me that the economics work; I’m right there with you. Replacing coal with renewable can be done. The issue here is the speed at which it can be done. Even under your optimistic scenario, we’re talking about a 30-year rollout.

        • And go on an cheerlead. Keep talking about how important it is to close the coal plants. Keep talking about how well the economics work. We need to replace the coal plants with solar and wind, and we can do that.

          But don’t mistake cheerleading for planning.

  2. “Dirty coal is killing us and killing the earth,” but let’s not do anything about it unless the solution is 100% without cost, and fits in perfectly with my other political goals.

    Think globally, act counterproductively!

  3. Hi Juan. The push to get rid of coal plants is important for all sorts of reasons, as is the need to remove toxins such as mercury and diesel particulates from the air.

    Would that eliminate autism, however? No. Would that reduce autism? Maybe, though one associational study, even a good one, is not the firmest foundation on which to build such strong claims.

    And what does this study show? For all heavy metals the incidence of autism is about 1.2% in quintile 1 (lowest exposure group) and 1.4% in quintile 5 (highest exposure group). That increase matters (decisively if you are someone who is affected), but it is not an enormous change. So one wants to be careful about just what kinds of benefits are claimed for getting rid of coal plants.

    Jenny McCarthy is nutty in sticking to her claims about vaccination and autism, but I’m not sure this study shows that the main culprit in the increase in autism is coal. As I said, there are lots of other good reasons to get rid of coal-fired plants.

    • If the coal plants are contributing in any way to an increase in autism, that is a tort.

      Unfortunately destroying the world with CO2 is not a tort.

      So actually even a small increase in the incidence of autism as a result (and by the way for mercury exposure it was 2%) is a better legal case.

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