Quack Attack! The Case of the Dangerous Sippy Cup

You might not be shocked to learn that a personal injury lawyer is threatening a lawsuit alleging a plastic drinking cup caused a child's autism. Personal injury lawyers, after all, are notorious for turning wild and unsubstantiated claims into multi-million, and even billion-dollar paydays for themselves.

But you might be surprised to learn there is a network of "experts" who are ready, willing and able to support such a wild claim. Lawsuit abuse is certainly a problem. But the threat posed by these supposed experts is more acute. They put public health at risk.

Dallas-based lawyer Brian R. Arnold wrote Playtex Products, Inc. in January alleging that a toddler became seriously ill and, eventually, "began to exhibit autistic behavior," after drinking from a plastic spill-proof cup made by Playtex.

Arnold claims the spill-proof cup was designed in a defective manner that allowed bacteria and mold to build in the cup. Alleging the bacteria caused the child's condition, Arnold accused Playtex of negligence in distributing a defective cup and demanded $11 million in damages.

In a rational world, this lawsuit would have no chance of success.

No one knows what causes autism. The condition is believed to be predominantly genetic in origin. In 1995, a National Institutes of Health working group reached a consensus that autism likely depends on multiple gene interaction.

Factors that cause injury to the fetal brain during the first trimester of pregnancy, such as the drug thalidomide and alcohol, are also associated with autism. No evidence indicates that late-pregnancy or after-birth events are associated with autism.

In sum, Arnold's claim is not supported by any of what little is known about autism, according to a renowned autism expert.

Undaunted, Arnold did what any good lawyer would do. He cobbled together "experts" with the "right" answer.

He discovered a cottage industry that makes a living promoting bacteria, antibiotics, vaccines, certain foods, and chemicals in the environment as causes of autism. These experts include Dr. Stephanie Cave and William Shaw, Ph.D.

Dr. Cave, who runs a "holistic" general practice in Baton Rouge, diagnosed the child with "dysbiosis," a serious-sounding medical condition. Dysbiosis means one's intestinal bacteria are somehow out of "balance." Dr. Cave says dysbiosis is associated with behavioral disorders and autism in children.

As it turns out, dysbiosis is a quacky concept promoted by alternative medicine industry. Dysbiosis is not recognized by mainstream medical experts.

William Shaw, Ph.D., who runs the Great Plains Laboratory, reported that the child had elevated levels of yeast by-products, indicating a "yeast/fungal overgrowth of the gastrointestinal tract." Dr. Shaw says such yeast infections cause autism.

Even giving Dr. Shaw's theory the benefit of doubt, the bacteria found on the Playtex cup was not the same kind that was found in the child.

Though these "experts" have no credible evidence that "dysbiosis" or yeast cause autism, they exploit the circumstances of autism.

Autistic behavior becomes apparent as children enter the stage when they go from saying a few words to generating more complex and communicative language, between the ages of 16 months to 36 months. Though the damage leading to autism is genetic or occurs very early in pregnancy, the condition isn't noticeable until development doesn't progress normally.

Parents whose children "turn" autistic often associate the onset of disease with some event or environmental exposure after birth. Though years of intensive investigation has failed to discover any sort of post-natal cause, so-called experts like Drs. Cave and Shaw exploit the parents' understandable and desperate search for a cause of their children's autism.

The lawsuit aside, though, quacks like these put us all at risk.

In 1998, British researchers reported that a few dozen children developed autism after receiving the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. The researchers claimed the vaccine harmed the brain. Fanned by quacks, panic quickly spread through news stories and the Internet. Ireland, in particular, was hit hard.

Measles incidence in Dublin increased nearly 10 times, including several deaths, following a drop in vaccination rates associated with the MMR alarm.

But the MMR-autism link fails the test of reality. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association and several other studies from the U.K. report no correlation between autism rates and vaccination rates. These studies report no dramatic increase in autism when the MMR vaccination became common.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, American Academy of Pediatrics, National Alliance for Autism Research and other organizations have worked hard to debunk the MMR-autism myth and avoid a deadly epidemic of measles.

Playtex is in the process of responding to Arnold's demand. However, it ultimately dispenses with the baseless claims, hopefully Playtex won't do anything that encourages the autism quacks to perpetuate their public health-threatening ideas.