Will Redwood was a healthy, happy baby for the first year of his life. Back then, he cooed, cried, laughed and slept just like a normal infant.
Not long after his first birthday, Will's parents -- Lyn, a nurse, and Tommy, an emergency physician -- perceived something was wrong.
"We noticed he wasn't talking," Lyn Redwood says. "He had been talking when he went to his 12-month checkup. He wasn't talking at the time of his 18-month checkup."
Will also had stopped making eye contact like he used to. He had multiple infections and bouts of diarrhea -- classic symptoms of autism and mercury poisoning.
In 1999, Will, then 5 years old, was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, a form of autism. That was same year the U.S. Federal Drug Administration disclosed for the first time that a common preservative in required vaccines for children was made of 49.6 percent mercury.
Shortly after the FDA's proclamation landed at Lyn Redwood's nursing station, she dug up a strand of Will's hair from his first haircut when he was 20 months old, tucked away with motherly love. She had it tested, and found mercury levels almost five times higher than acceptable safe levels.
Lyn suspected the vaccines were responsible for the high levels of mercury in her son. She went back through Will's medical record and calculated that at 2 months of age, Will received 62.5 micrograms of mercury from only three infant vaccines. A dose of more than half a microgram of mercury exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended levels. In that one day alone, Will was injected with 125 times the safe amount of mercury.
The vaccines were not the only sources of mercury Will was exposed to.
"When I first started going online and reading about mercury and looking at other sources of mercury, I didn't really have any idea about Southern Co. [Georgia Power's parent company] and how close we were to those plants," Lyn Redwood says.
She has a better idea now. The Redwoods live in Tyrone, about 80 miles from four different Georgia Power plants. Coal and gas-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emitted into the environment in the world, according to the EPA.
The Redwoods filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Fayette County in July 2001 against Georgia Power and some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, including Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and Aventis Pharmaceuticals.
Lyn says the goal of the lawsuits is "to stop it all. I don't think I'm really doing anything different than what any other parent would do who had a child that was damaged this way. You don't want to see it happen to another child."
To the surprise of no one, Georgia Power is fighting the lawsuit.
"From Georgia Power's stand point, the consensus of the scientific community is there's no basis for concluding that air emission from power plants cause or contribute to autism, and Georgia Power will defend this matter in a court of law," says Georgia Power spokeswoman Amoi Geter.
Not every scientist would agree with that statement. Dr. Edwin C. Holstein, a lecturer at Boston University and Mt. Sinai Medical Schools and former associate editor of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine testified in the Redwood case that pollution from the four plants "would have contributed to the overall exposure sustained by [Will] during the course of the two to three years of his lifetime."
In fact, Holstein's testimony convinced U.S. District Court Judge Jack Camp to allow the case to continue in Fayette County Superior Court, where a hometown jury would likely look more favorably on a local family, instead of federal court. It was a victory for the Redwoods, and their attorney Roger Wilson, who has filed 17 other mercury-related lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies and Georgia Power.
"What we're seeking for them is compensation to help them raise their children, their damaged children, and maintain them for the rest of their lives -- and after the parents die," Wilson says.