Scientists: Autism May Be Caused by Chemicals

An increasing number of studies point to exposure to chemicals as a major cause of autism, CNN reported June 7.  Autism is a group of developmental disorders that affects an estimated 1 in 110 American children, can cause behavioral and socialization problems, and costs a family an estimated $3.2 million to care for over a lifetime.

The percentage of children diagnosed with autism has increased markedly in recent years, rising 17 percent since the 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Vaccines have been scientifically disproved to be causes of autism, and more evidence is mounting that chemical exposure, together with genetics, are contributing factors.

"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 in a conference call with reporters.

"Lead, mercury, and other neurotoxic chemicals have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe," she said.

The central nervous system of the fetus is sensitive to a wide range of chemicals, Hertz-Piccotto said.  Hormones, such as estrogens and androgens, are essential for proper brain development. Endocrine-disrupting compounds need more research, she said. Flame-retardant chemicals called PBDEs interfere with the body's hormones.  Even though many of them are no longer used in manufacturing, they can hang around in the environment and the human body for a long time.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is aware of concerns about these chemicals and is working on accessing substitutions (see the action plan).

Bisphenol A, present in plastic food packaging and water bottles, among other products, is another big concern, she said, because it could interfere with the body's natural estrogen system; antimicrobials added to soaps, toothpaste and other products can artificially enhance androgenic activity.

"That means that they could potentially play a role in autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders," Hertz-Piccotto said.

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