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Autism Rate Spikes Point to Environmental Factors

by The Next Family January 16, 2013

By Rachel Sarnoff

Photo: Rodale’s 10 Suspect Causes of Autism


What does autism have to do with the environment? Everything.

Autism is America’s fastest growing developmental disability. Autism rates have risen nearly 600% in 20 years, to the point that now one out of every 88 children—or one out of every 70 boys—is statistically destined for diagnosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Why the dramatic increase? Increased identification of the condition comes into play when looking at a data spike. But six hundred percent? More and more, doctors and scientists are pointing the finger at chemicals in the environment.

Last year, a study published in the journal Clinical Epigenetics looked a at how substances such as high fructose corn syrup can lead to mineral deficiencies, how deficiencies in minerals such as zinc can reduce the body’s ability to eliminate toxic substances such as mercury and pesticides, which have been linked to autism.

A group of autism experts published a list of chemicals and heavy metals believed to be behind the surge in autism and other neurological problems, Rodale reported. The list includes lead, mercury, PCBs, organochlorine and organophosphate pesticides, vehicular air pollution, flame retardants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), BPA and the chemicals in nonstick cookware.

“We have very powerful, very sophisticated tools we can use to measure chemicals at very low levels,”said Phil Landrigan, Chair of Preventative Medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York and co-author of the list. “It’s now possible to connect early exposure to problems in childhood.”

“We live, breathe and start our families in the presence of toxic chemical mixtures and constant low-level toxic exposures, in stark contrast to the way chemicals are tested for safety,” said Donna Ferullo, Director of Program Research at The Autism Society said at a conference call organized by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families in 2011. “Lead, mercury, and other neurotoxic chemicals have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe.”

Just to be clear: There is no clear data on why autism occurs. Most scientists agree that there are many factors—from genetic to environmental—which may increase risk for ASD. Environmental factors include chemicals, infectious agents, and various health problems in the parents.

Hundreds of genes have been associated with autism, some of which are inherited and some of which are found in people with autism but not in their parents. Through the study of epigenetics, many scientists are focusing on the non-genetic—i.e. environmental and developmental—factors that cause the genes to behave differently; changes that may be passed on through multiple generations.

As Dick Jackson, Chair of UCLA’s Environmental Health Sciences Department once told me, “The genes load the gun. The environment pulls the trigger.” Unfortunately, we don’t yet know what that trigger is. But I’m guessing it’s man made.


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