18 July 2006

iPods, autism and journalism

I can't even believe I'm writing this, but I am and I will.

In my recent post on journalism, I suggested that I would steer clear of stories on Apple to avoid clouding a post with any bias I may have. After all, my issues with the press transcend anything that Apple may produce.

But this article I came across today really takes the biscuit, and I am forced (temporarily I promise to suspend my use of Apple-related stories in my onslaught against the stupid (British) press.

Here's the headline:
Toxic iPod link to shock rise in autistic children

(yes, really, honestly)

It comes from the Express on Sunday (another British rag of course, though a tabloid one), via Thomson. I can't exactly vouch for the Express headline - typically for such a newspaper you can neither find the article nor search the newspaper on the web, but I will assume it was the same. Here we go with the first paragraph:

THE huge rise of autism in Britain is linked to old iPod batteries, mobile phones and other products of the electronic age, a leading scientist claimed this weekend.

Let me preface this by saying that I am very worried about autism. I support the Cure Autism Now foundation in the US (though I should do more), and I have some wonderful friends who have been affected by this to a great extent. I could link you to a website that would bring tears to your eyes (as well as laughter and joy). I take research into autism very seriously. For a while I was even taken in by the MMR scam which I think has proven a complete red herring and demonstrated a fundamental failing in the way scientific research and the media interact (primarily because of greed and ego of course). But that's for another day.

For all I know, the scientist mentioned here may be doing great work and maybe on to something (toxic heavy metals for instance), but the reporting of it is truly disgusting. How much is the scientist himself to blame? I have in fact checked out his publication record, and it is quite distinguished, though he is relatively new to the field of autism. At first, I thought it might be a coincidence he has a book to promote (I'm not going to publish the link as that would be aiding, but you can find it at Amazon)? But, I've thought more about this, and don't think that's likely. Looking again at the statements attributed to him, I think he mentioned the word iPod almost in passing among a number of themes. I think he's made a mistake by picking a brand (if he did). The blame lies fairly and squarely on the reporting. The reporters obviously do not consider it their mission to do something positive. Or if they do, they have a very, very poor understanding of cause and effect or the ability to understand the magnitude of the issues being reported. They should certainly give up writing about health and science if after hearing Dr Lathe, their interpretation is that toxic iPods are primarily or even slightly to blame.

Where do we begin with this? Let's look at just a few of the things that are so fundamentally wrong with this article:
1. iPods have been around since November 2001. The number disposed in landfill would be quite tiny in any country. The amount of "bad stuff" leaked out (if any) would be minute even now.

2. The number of iPods ever produced is dwarfed by the number of mobile phones by a factor of at least 150:1. Mobile phones however have been popular since the early 90's and we are encouraged to trade in our phones on an annual basis for the latest model of course. I would imagine that the number of iPods built is about 1/250th the number of mobile phones the world has ever produced. Why on earth would you not use the mobile phone as the prime culprit in reporting this story? If you wish to change behaviour that would have a greater effect. (Personally, I also doubt the mobile phone is to blame either).

3. I would imagine that the iPod represents at most around 0.2% of all electronic goods ever produced that use rechargeable batteries in some degree, and mp3 players collectively would not exceed even 0.4%. That's probably a high estimate. What about batteries from disposed laptops which are far larger for instance? Yet, iPod batteries are not amongst the list, they are first in the list.

4. Are Li-ion/polymer batteries better for the environment than using multiple disposable AA batteries or rechargeable NiCd/NiMh batteries? I don't know for sure, but I'd be surprised if the answer is no. I can count on my hands and feet the number of such (Li-ion) batteries I've ever used (and I still have most of them). But I imagine the number of disposable batteries is in the high hundreds.

5. What device are people most likely to dump in landfill? Is it the expensive 3 year old mp3 player or the walkman they've had for 10 years gathering dust or the first generation digital camera? If you want to change behaviour focus on what is going to make a difference.

6. The original author points out that Mercury seems to be the prime heavy metal implicated in this. I can pretty much guarantee that no Apple product or battery in an Apple product has any mercury whatsoever in the last 10 years if ever. Mercury is not permitted in electronic goods to my knowledge. However, it did appear in things like flourescent lights as mercury vapour for many years. If mercury is in landfill it didn't come from iPods. Mercury was also used in tiny amounts in some versions of the MMR vaccine.

7. I should also point out that recent research on mercury and autism revealed that removing mercury from the MMR vaccination had NO effect (zero) on autism rates. So, in fact Mercury may have nothing to do with autism (Google it yourself, folks).

8. The author mentions "every ship that sinks, every rusting car..." contributes to toxic metals. So, in fact the problem is far, far wider than just consumer eletronic goods again. By my calculations all the iPods ever shipped weigh just 6,500 tonnes - so about 1/2000th of the weight of cars scrapped just in the UK each year (approx 2m). Indeed, approximately 80,000 tonnes of tyres were disposed in UK landfill sites last year. Do you think 80,000 tonnes of tyres each year is perhaps slightly worse than immediately disposing of all the iPods ever made in a landfill in Berkshire? Why, why, why "toxic iPods"?

9. What about other causes of mercury and toxic metals in the environment such as dentistry, and crop spraying/agriculture. Again, these are surely bigger causes. In the latter case, that's a more obvious way in which such things can get indirectly into our bodies.

10. Apple (and other quality electronic consumer goods manufacturers) offer a recycling policy which could have been pointed out in the article and again, publicity of this could actually make a difference to people's behaviour.

I would be happy to eat an iPod of anyone's choosing (1st generation through to 5th, via mini, nano and shuffle) if anyone can produce even the slightest real evidence that a particular person is autistic because of an iPod battery (higher incidence near a Cupertino landfill anyone?). Heh, I'd even eat one of my own iPods. It might take me a few weeks to do it crushed and sprinkled in my breakfast cereal, but I would.

Of course, many of you reading this will say that I'm over-reacting, the story is not about iPods and that "iPod" is used generically for MP3 players (which is a GOOD thing for Apple). People understand enough that they would not think Apple was the prime culprit but that all electronic devices are equally at fault (not true of course). But, I'm afraid I take a dimmer view of society's comprehension skills (especially of people who read the Express on Sunday). Such reporting does nothing to alter the fundamental behaviours that may (or may not) contribute to this problem (and irrespective of autism, battery disposal/electronics goods disposal, and indeed ANY disposal IS a severe environmental problem). It uses one brand to draw attention to the article (succeeded in that one!) but it puts the blame on that brand for a problem that is about our own selfish behaviour and laziness and in which that brand is far less culpable than many other brands and companies (even household names). Apple should sue for libel/slander/defamation (you can tell I'm not a lawyer) and put the Express group out of existence. That would be a public service to us all indeed.

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