An Ill Wind Blows into a Child’s Life

Bioaccumulation of heavy metals in autistic children
November 30, 2005 Updated: July 5, 2015

Most Americans remember with clarity where they were when they first heard the news of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Life-defining moments like 9/11 are those rare events that reshape society and culture, forever changing how people take stock of their lives. This holds especially true for those who witnessed the tragedy firsthand.

For me, a rooftop witness to the fire and smoke that poured out of the Twin Towers, the day after 9/11 has lingered in my mind with equal brilliance and anxiety. Confined at home with work closed, my son and I appeared safe in the shutdown city with Navy jets flying over the empty skyline. And why shouldn’t I have felt that way? We lived Uptown at 94th Street and Third Avenue on the opposite end of the island, six miles away from the smoldering ruins of the collapsed buildings that made up the World Trade Center complex.

Yet what happened that morning unnerved me. With our 14th floor living room window ajar, I began to smell an acrid, burning smoke that I had never smelled before. I raced around the apartment looking for the source of the fire. I found nothing. Watching my son, Fridrik, play by the open window, wondering where the pungent odor was coming from, I had a delayed reaction. The smoke that I saw drift east to Brooklyn on 9/11, blew north as the wind changed direction the next day. I closed the window. But my gut feeling told me it was too late.

A Child Sickens

By the next morning, Fridrik began to cough. It was a dry, hacker’s cough as if he had smoked cigarettes for twenty years. Within a week, he developed an acute ear infection–the only one of his life. On the 25th of September, my wife and I took Fridrik to see his pediatrician. This was the same doctor who told us one year before that an infant’s lungs develop over the first three years. So when we inquired about taking him swimming the only restriction the doctor emphasized was “no dunking.” With the cough still persisting weeks after the insult, the pediatrician gave Fridrik his only prescription of penicillin in his life. It wasn’t for the cough, but the ear infection. Although the cough dissipated over time, the thought about what toxic chemicals had invaded my son’s lungs never left me.

If pool water is bad for an infant, then how much worse would be the scorched air emanating out of Ground Zero? The answer came more than three years later, and almost two years after Fridrik had been diagnosed with autism.

On Valentine’s Day, we decided to forego the ritual romantic dinner and took Fridrik to see a doctor. The results were in for his red blood cell analysis test, which profile the metal makeup of a person’s body–from essential (good) metals, like zinc and iron, to heavy metals that can be harmful. When we learned that our son was carrying high amounts of mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic in him, we were at a loss. How did he become so “dirty” at such a young age? Having done extensive research into the vaccine-thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative used in many vaccines), we knew we would find mercury in him, but not the other three neurotoxins.

The Danger of Ground Zero

It took only the subway ride home from the doctor’s office for the burnt smell of 9/12 to come racing back. We began to research and interview people, including several New York journalists, to see if those heavy metals in Fridrik were present in the World Trade Center. In short, we discovered that computers carry high amounts of mercury; cadmium can be found in light fixtures; and arsenic and lead in the steel. The World Trade Center, which comprised a small city of 60,000 people, with computers on every desk and light fixtures in every room and corridor, became the focus for the secondary source of heavy metal poisoning.

We learned that the EPA air monitoring stations were setup at the northern-most limit of 14th Street–a good eighty blocks from where we lived–but a poor location to get a true sampling of what was airborne. More research brought home a frightening fact. The intense fires, which appeared to vaporize everything in their path, released the superheated heavy metals into the air. And when the particles of lead and arsenic cooled off, far from the source of the heat, they shrank in size and collected on the dust and drifted, in Fridrik’s case, uptown into our home and in his lungs.

I was never concerned about asbestos or other PCB, cancer-causing chemicals harming him. His exposure was limited in time. But after learning that mercury from the baby vaccines had shutdown Fridrik’s glutathione, or his ability to filter out neurotoxins, I knew that he had more than enough exposure to ingest the bad stuff–something far worse than being dunked in a pool. 

What parents of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) children need to know is that heavy metals, which come from the earth’s crust, cannot be destroyed, incinerated, or broken down any further. Once inside an ASD kid, mercury and the rest can stay there for up to a third of his or her life if not treated.

Fridrik wasn’t the only child on the spectrum, a “human” magnet collecting heavy metals in the city when 9/11 occurred. And the Upper East Side wasn’t the only area in the city to be hit by the poisonous air that cooked for more than a month after the towers collapsed. There are other children who were insulted, adding to the “bioaccumulation” problem that impacts their speech, amplifies their senses, and zaps their nervous system.

Finally, there are other 9/11-like events that put ASD children in harm’s way: the fires in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; the cities that burned in the riots that plague France. There are also more innocuous sources, from the water we drink to the air tainted by industrial plants.

For children like Fridrik, the struggle has not only been treating him for toxins that have made a home in his body and brain, but trying to prevent primary (vaccines) and secondary sources of heavy metals from leeching again into his body and not out.

James Ottar Grundvig lives and works in New York City. He is the father of an autistic child.