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Autism Coach

Chemicals Linked to Autism, ADHD and other Learning Disabilities Doubled Study Shows


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Copyright 2014, Susan Bennett. This article is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without explicitly written permission of the author.

February 26, 2014. The number of industrial chemicals with known links to learning disabilities like autism and ADHD has more than doubled in the past seven years, according to new research published in internationally respected medical journal, The Lancet Neurology. This research adds to the list of chemicals published in their researchers' original article published in 2006.

As rates of autism and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) increase worldwide, researchers believe widespread exposure to these chemicals among children may be contributing to a “silent epidemic” of people with neuro-developmental disabilities.

Based on an analysis of previous studies, the list of chemicals believed to pose a threat to the brains of fetuses and young children: the list now contains: manganese (also an essential mineral that is beneficial but is neurotoxic when inhaled through gasoline and excessive levels in ground water and when administered to premature infant intravenously in a nutrient IV), fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

“Chlorpyrifos is an organic pesticide. Ten years ago it was banned for household use, but it is still extensively used in agriculture and can be found in lots of fruits and vegetables,” study co-author Dr. Philip Landrigan, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, is a type of flame retardant frequently found in couches.

And while the pesticide DDT is now banned in the U.S. due to human health risks, it’s still found in imported fruits and vegetables, as well as in soil and water throughout the country.

These six chemicals have been added to a list of five other neurointoxins – lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (plastics used in baby bottles and other common household items), arsenic, and toluene (a solvent used in paint thinners, printing ink) – first identified by Landrigan and his co-author, Dr. Phillipe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health, in 2006.

The authors site over a 1000 chemicals that have been shown to be neurotoxic to lab animals but do not yet have funded studies linking these chemicals to humans and children, so these chemicals are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. On top of this, these chemicals may interact with each other and the environment in unanticipated ways that may also be neurotoxic.

How chemicals harm the developing brain

During the early weeks of pregnancy, an embryo forms the cells that eventually go on to become the brain and spinal cord. Those cells divide, multiply and migrate, forming millions or even billions of connections with surrounding cells – and build up the pathways that form the body’s central nervous system.

“If some chemical gets in to the developing brain, whether lead or methylmercury, and either kills brain cells or disrupts cell division or cell migration, those connections are lost and the brain is not as complete as it should have been,” Landrigan said. “And the consequence is a child whose intelligence is reduced and attention span shortened, etc. The human brain is a wondrous creation, and extremely complex, but the price of that complexity is vulnerability.”

Though the researchers acknowledge that increasing rates of conditions like ADHD and autism are partially due to increased awareness about these conditions, they argue that other factors are also at play.

“We note the increase of later diagnoses of these disorders tracks very nicely with increased production and release into environment of synthetic chemicals over last 40 or 50 years,” Landrigan said. “And then on top of that, there’s the direct evidence we present in [the] paper showing these particular chemicals have been linked to these problems in children.”

How to curb the effects of industrial toxins

Currently, the United States has no system by which to screen the potential health effects of industrial chemicals before they enter the marketplace – a problem which must change in order to reduce the levels of dangerous toxins in the environment, according to Landrigan.

“That’s the first thing, calling for proper chemical testing,” Landrigan said. “There is bipartisan legislation currently in Congress introduced by the late Senator Lautenberg and Senator (David) Vitter and they said, ‘This is a nonpartisan issue, we all have children, we should do something about it,’ and it’s currently being debated.”

Secondly, Landrigan and Grandjean propose setting up an international agency dedicated to studying the toxicity of chemicals, similar to organizations like the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Landrigan said he believes efforts like these could slowly curb increasing rates of autism and other neuro-developmental disorders in the United States.

“The short answer is yes [it could curb rates of autism and other disorders], and the longer answer is it would take time,” Landrigan said. “These chemicals are out there, some of them are quite persistent. They aren’t going to disappear overnight, but I think it’s entirely worthwhile for the government to take action.”

However, concerned parents can also take action to reduce exposure in simpler ways – for example, by eating organic or eliminating wall-to-wall carpeting in homes, which can trap chemicals and pesticides.

“Lastly, I talk with parents about what to buy and even in the case of chemicals where evidence for toxicity is not yet solid, like phthalates and BPA, it makes sense to buy products free of chemicals,” Landrigan said. “I say to people, ‘Why take a chance? Why risk your health and your child’s health with exposure to a chemical [with] at least some toxicity when there are safe alternatives available?’

Of course it's not quite as simple as that. In the United States we are the guinea pigs of the byproducts of industrialization and corporate profit through the introduction of chemicals into the environment. Nowhere in the United States can we completely escape from environmental toxins - it's in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, and the non-food products we use in our homes, schools, and places of work. Even the organic pesticide, Bacillus Thuringis (BT), that is approved for use on organic produce and is also used as a gene inserted into some genetically modifed (GMO) crops, is being identified as a disrupter of normal neurological growth. If we want to be healthy and feel well and function optimally, we have to take action on a daily basis to detoxify and support healthy metabolic processes.