By M. Beresford for Embracing Atypical
Mid January, while investigating the use of MMS industrial grade bleach on autistic children, I became aware of turpentine paint thinners being pitched as a means to “cure” autism. I was astounded that parents would intentionally force their children to ingest chemicals designed to peel and remove paint and launched an undercover investigation into these groups and individuals that would have meaningful results.
I was given a lead by a fellow autistic and created a fake user profile on the social media platform “MeWe.” I began to establish relationships with individuals within groups created to push MMS bleach cures on Autistic children. My fake user profile included a bio about being a father to a “child with severe autism,” and that I wanted to “recover him from the grip of autism.”
After a few days, I was approached by a member of the Genesis II Church, a cult organization founded for the express purpose of selling and sharing their MMS industrial bleach “cure-all.” This individual spoke with me at length about how to “cure autism,” but they were very cautious about discussing things for fear of exposure, in part due to the work of Autistic advocate Emma Dalmayne. They were, however, more than happy to discuss the forced ingestion of turpentine on autistic children and I was given an invitation join their closed Facebook groups. What I found in these groups was nauseating. I saw parent after parent offer testimonials of dosing their child with turpentine paint thinners, knowing that these autistic children were suffering abuse from the people they trusted the most.
Searching through the history of one particular group led me to discover these parents were using popular internet sites to justify and validate these horrific practices. Chief among these websites was WebMD.com’s listing of Turpentine Oil as a “vitamin and supplement,” complete with dosing recommendations, uses, and testimonials. I was dumbfounded; a legitimate and popular medical resource listed paint thinner as a supplement.
I felt that something needed to be done about the listing and collected relevant screenshot evidence of parents engaging in child abuse and made a phone call to WebMD’s Director of Communications. We spoke and she appeared to share my shock and concern, both understanding the danger and liability exposure that the turpentine listing posed to the autistic community and the WebMD company. She requested a letter summarizing the conversation and on 28 January 2019, the following letter was sent to her office:
Hello Ms. Garrison,
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. As we discussed, the use of turpentine as a medicinal supplement is dangerous and potentially fatal. While ethical practices and content moderation may not be a preferred discussion, I am grateful to hear that WebMD is taking the subject seriously.
I am a member of The Autistic Cooperative (TAC); a worldwide group of professional Autistic advocates representing over 75 member organizations. We have been featured on every form of media as we work to advocate for the safety, dignity, and success of autistic individuals. Periodically as concerns are brought to our attention, members of TAC investigate and publicly expose activities that jeopardize the welfare of Autistic children. A recent inquiry revealed the use of turpentine (yes, paint thinners) being pitched and promoted as a “cure-all” for childhood ailments and as a health supplement. Discussions regarding attempts to “treat” the so-called symptoms of autism with turpentine are frequently had.
As we discussed on the phone, WebMD has been brought into this discussion for a few reasons. WebMD lists turpentine as a supplement and hosts a full multi-page entry about uses and potential dosing of this paint thinning chemical. On behalf of The Autistic Cooperative, I request that this entry be removed. The use of turpentine in any fashion (including but not limited to inhalation, ingestion and topical application) on a child or adult can and will result in severe illness, spasm of the airways, suffocation, bodily harm, and even death. Interestingly, your site lists the dangers of use, all the while listing the chemical as “possibly safe” for various applications. As you will see below in the screenshots, people are using your site as validation of the potential safety of paint thinners for ailment remedy. This puts WebMD in a particularly dangerous and position of serious financial and legal liability should someone be harmed, including an Autistic person, because a trusted caretaker used a dangerous chemical and felt validated to do so because of the wording and description of paint thinner as a supplement on your website.
Below you will find screenshots of individuals boasting about using turpentine on their infants, children and Autistic people. Additionally, you will see screenshots of individuals using WebMD as a form of validating their dangerous practice. As you review the testimonials on your turpentine listing from your page directly you will note people are boasting about using turpentine on children, on your hosted platform. Keep in mind, this is just a very small sampling of the evidence that has been collected regarding this practice. There are several secret social media groups with several thousand people in them.
I believe that when a company, such as WebMD is given an influential platform, they have an ethical obligation to protect the public interest and the interest of the disabled community within reason. I believe changing or removing turpentine as a supplement is a reasonable and ethical step toward fulfilling that obligation and reflects on WebMD’s motto and desire to be “America’s most trusted and reliable source of medical information.” While the use of turpentine may not have been considered dangerous in the past, current science and medical interventions demonstrate clear dangers.
Thank you for taking the time to review my request. Once this investigation is finished and made public I look forward to praising WebMD as a platform that cares for and listens to the concerns of Autistic individuals and their advocates.
Dr. Madison Beresford,
The Autistic Cooperative
This emailed letter included the following attachments providing evidence of harm to both autistic and neurotypical children, and their website being recommended by group membership:
PLEASE NOTE THAT THE FOLLOWING SCREENSHOT MESSAGES ARE DISTURBING:
The Communications Director was eager to pass my letter along to the medical team in Atlanta, where their Chief Medical Director responded the next day with the following email:
Dear Dr. Beresford,
Thank you for your email regarding WebMD’s content on turpentine oil.
I would like to point out that the information with respect to turpentine oil on our site calls out turpentine oil as UNSAFE when taken by mouth or used over a large area of skin and calls out a list of possible adverse reactions, including brain damage, coma, and death. The information on our site also labels use of turpentine oil in children as UNSAFE when taken by mouth. The content also recommends avoiding all use of any turpentine oil by any means in children.
That said, it is troubling that some would incorrectly use the content to support their use of turpentine oil in a way that is specifically identified on our site as unsafe with the risk of death. Given that, we have taken the content under review.
Again, thank you for bringing this to my attention.
Michael W. Smith, MD, MBA, CPT
Chief Medical Director
I found it interesting that his response seemed to be more concerned with pointing out that in his opinion, the site adequately communicated the unsafe nature of using turpentine, over the safety of children. This was all a bit ironic, considering the website listed turpentine as a medicinal supplement. I responded with the following email:
Thank you for taking the time to review my concern. If WebMD would be willing to make a press release about the dangers of using the chemicals, along with some language adjustments on the turpentine page I think we can find common ground.
My email was ignored, my follow up phone calls left unreturned. Several weeks later I checked the listing and noticed that WebMD had silently taken down the turpentine oil supplement listing, replacing it with a simple band-aid “page not found” 404 error message. I’d never been so happy to see a giant picture of a band-aid.
I do want to give WebMD credit for taking the listing down, I know making any changes within a large corporation can take considerable effort and is not by any means easy. But I do also believe in corporate responsibility, especially with organizations that intentionally provide medical advice. I rest easy knowing that The Autistic Cooperative member organizations will continue to hold companies accountable to protect autistic children.
With that in mind, I thank WebMD for honoring autistic advocacy and look forward to working with them in the future as needed. A big thank you to The Autistic Cooperative for providing the structural support for Autistic Advocates, worldwide.