Are Unrestricted Toxic Chemicals the Cause of Autism?

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting in on a conference call featuring some of the leaders in autism research and care, writes Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff. The call was part of a series focusing on the effects of chemicals in commerce, hosted by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, of which Healthy Child Healthy World is a coalition member.

As I listened to the introduction by Safer Chemicals’ National Campaign Director, Andy Ingrejas, I was struck by how little has changed since I first became involved with Healthy Child more than five years ago—and since the organization began, in 1992. Despite all our efforts to raise awareness among parents, industry hasn’t budged: There are still 84,000 chemicals used in commerce, which are supposed to be regulated by the Toxic Chemicals Control Act (TSCA).

Guess how many chemicals have been restricted since TSCA was passed in 1976? Five. Yes, you read that right. Five.

What I learned on the call supported the research of Dr. Martha Herbert, Dr. Phil Landrigan and Dr. Bob Sears, who contributed to our newest Healthy Child Healthy World Perspective on Autism, one in a series of articles featuring contributions from members of Healthy Child Healthy World’s Science and Health Advisory Board, Honorary Board and Board of Directors, as well as prominent organizations and members of the scientific community.

In a nutshell: Autism is America’s fastest growing developmental disability. An estimated 1.5 million children are currently affected by autism spectrum disorder in the United States. Autism rates have risen nearly 400% in 20 years, to the point that now one out of every 100 children—or one out of every 70 boys—is statistically destined for diagnosis.

Unregulated chemicals

The Safer Chemicals panel discussed factors such as scientists’ and doctors’ increased capacity to identify the condition, which comes into play when looking at such a spike in the data. But four hundred percent? There’s clearly something more at work here.

That key, the panel concluded, are the unregulated chemicals that infuse our children’s lives to the point that today babies are born pre-polluted with more than 200 chemicals in their blood, just from pre-natal exposure.

“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. “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. 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.

Large numbers of environmental factors are being looked at as well. These include chemicals, infectious agents, and various health problems in the parents.
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