The sharp rise in autism in recent years may be partly linked to toxic chemicals, according to a coalition of scientists, policy experts, and parents who discussed the potential connection during a conference call Tuesday. The group, led by the advocacy organization Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, is calling for legislation that would require chemicals, many of which are pervasive in the environment and in household products, to be tested for safety.
Chemicals commonly found in air, water, the ground and the food supply, as well as in everyday goods, have been linked to diseases and disorders such as autism, cancer, and asthma. Fetuses and infants are known to be particularly susceptible to toxic chemicals in the environment.
“Today, to a mother carrying BPA, mercury, phthalates, and brominated flame retardants, is born a baby with 200 contaminants already in its cord blood,” says Donna Ferullo, Director of Program Research at the Autism Society. “The developing brain is exquisitely sensitive to environmental exposures from conception through childhood.”
Ferullo says the chemical industry needs to be more strongly regulated to ensure the safety of children. “Toys, baby care products, cribs, mattresses, baby bottles and even nursing pillows are imbued with toxic substances, unregulated and untested for human safety as well as for their effect on the developing brain,” Ferullo says. “Lead, methylmercury, arsenic and toluene have been identified as known causes of neurodevelopmental disorders, yet are poorly regulated, widely available in manufacturing channels, and not tested in small constant doses or in combination.”
The 35-year old Toxic Substances Control Act does not empower the Environmental Protection Agency with enough authority to require companies to adequately test chemicals, according to the Governmental Accountability Office. Ferullo notes that since the TSCA became law in 1976, pollution has increased dramatically, and scientists have learned more about the toxic effects of mercury, lead and toxic chemicals. A proposed bill expected to reach the Senate later in the year, the Safe Chemicals Act, would reform chemical legislation.
Chemicals such as phthalates, brominated flame retardants, and certain pesticides are endocrine disruptors that have been linked to autism spectrum disorders and other developmental and cognitive problems. Phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA) are ubiquitous in many plastics, and have been linked to reproductive health problems and cancers. Some endocrine disruptors accumulate in the body and degrade slowly over time. Suruchi Chandra, a psychiatrist who received her medical degree from Yale University and specializes in biomedical interventions for children with autism, says endocrine disruptors affect the thryroid gland, which is critical to brain development.
Chandra recommends that families avoid endocrine disruptors and high pesticide foods, ensure water is clean, and use non-toxic cleaners, but admits that this can be daunting for parents with special needs children. “Imagine having to read all the labels on every item that you buy and carefully selecting what you’re going to bring into your home,” Chandra says. “It really places these families in a place where they have to by hypervigilant and anxious.”
Lisa Huguenin, the mother of a 9-year old boy with autism, agrees that it’s next to impossible to ensure that children are safe from dangerous chemicals. “Even though I make every effort to keep my house safe, I have no way of knowing if the household products that I use or the toys my sons play with are really safe, because the chemicals that make them up are not rigorously tested and there is little or no information regarding them,” Huguenin says. “If I, a person well educated in the field of human exposure to chemicals cannot be confident that I am keeping my family safe, then neither can the average person.” Huguenin has a Ph.D. in Environmental Science/Exposure Measurement and Assessment.
Chandra says when she started working with children in the 1990s, she was told to observe a particular child with autism because she might not see one again. However, she says a decade later 10-20 percent of the children she encountered were on the autism spectrum, indicating a “real and sudden” increase.
The incidence of autism has risen for 35 years and now affects 1 in 110 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2009 study by the UC Davis MIND Institute (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) determined that the increase in autism cannot be explained simply by how autism is diagnosed.
Irva Hertz-Piccotto, Chief of the Division of Environmental Health at U.C Davis and an author of the MIND study, says greater awareness, changes in diagnostic criteria, and inclusion of milder cases cannot account for the increase in autism, and it’s time to do more research on environmental factors.
“The genes, more and more it’s becoming clear, are not going to explain the whole story,” Hertz-Piccotto says. “What seems to be especially critical, however, is the prenatal environment and potential interactions between susceptibility genes and environmental chemicals.”
Hertz-Piccotto says environmental factors play a complex role with genetics in autism, and she authored a study that demonstrated the influence of prenatal factors in the health of children. In the study, women who did not take a daily prenatal vitamin early in their pregnancies had a higher risk of having a child with autism, especially if they had susceptible genes.
In Mind Disrupted, a 2010 study of the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative, 12 people volunteered to be tested for suspected neurotoxic or endocrine disrupting chemicals. BPA, mercury, lead, and 13 other toxic substances were detected in each participant.
In the past eight years, 18 states have implemented 78 laws restricting chemicals, but Ferullo says federal chemical legislation reform is sorely needed. “Improved regulation of toxic chemicals is a progressive and efficient solution expected to impact a devastating, lifelong, publically expensive condition, she said.
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has proposed the Safe Chemicals Act and is expected to bring the bill to the Senate later in the year. The bill would require the EPA to identify and manage the risks of known persistent and bioaccumulative toxins such as lead and mercury, ensure that most chemicals are tested for safety, and call for publicly available health and safety data for chemicals.
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