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Research: How chemical exposure factors in rising autism rates

Neurobehavioral development disorders, like autism, affect approximately 10—15% of all births, and prevalence rates of autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder seem to be steadily increasing in the United States. These disabilities can have severe consequences, they diminish quality of life, reduce the ability to achieve academically, and disturb behavior patterns. All of these complications can spell out profound consequences for the welfare and productivity of entire families as well as the communities in which they reside.

Research published in The Lancet found that, “Neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments, affect millions of children worldwide, and some diagnoses seem to be increasing in frequency. Industrial chemicals that injure the developing brain are among some of the known causes for this rise in prevalence. In 2006, we did a systematic review and identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene. Since 2006, epidemiological studies have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers. The fetus is not well protected against industrial chemicals. The placenta does not block the passage of many environmental toxicants from the maternal to the fetal circulation, and more than 200 foreign chemicals have been detected in umbilical cord blood. Additionally, many environmental chemicals are transferred to the infant through human breast milk. During fetal life and early infancy, the blood—brain barrier provides only partial protection against the entry of chemicals into the Central Nervous System”

The researchers also found, contrary to popular belief, that, “A meta-analysis of 27 cross-sectional studies of children exposed to fluoride in drinking water, suggests an average IQ decrement of about seven points in children exposed to raised fluoride concentrations.” Furthermore, a recent study compared the estimated total IQ losses from major pediatric causes and showed that the magnitude of losses attributable to lead, pesticides, and other neurotoxicants was in the same range as, or even greater than, the losses associated with medical events such as preterm birth, traumatic brain injury, brain tumors, and congenital heart disease.

In 2000 and 2002, the autism estimate was about 1 in 150 children. Two years later 1 in 125 8-year-olds was believed to have autism. In 2006, the number grew to 1 in 110, and then the number went up to 1 in 88 based on 2008 data. CNN reported March 28 that, according to recent reports from the CDC, “One in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a 30% increase from 1 in 88 two years ago.”

The presumption that new chemicals and technologies are safe until proven otherwise is a fundamental and widespread problem. “Classic examples of new chemicals that were introduced because they conveyed certain benefits, but were later shown to cause great harm, include several neurotoxicants, asbestos, thalidomide, diethylstilboestrol, and the chlorofluorocarbons.” A recurring theme can be found in each of these cases, “commercial introduction and wide dissemination of the chemicals preceded any systematic effort to assess potential toxicity. Particularly absent were advance efforts to study possible effects on children's health or the potential of exposures in early life to disrupt early development. Similar challenges have been confronted with other public health disasters, such as those caused by tobacco smoking, alcohol use, and refined foods.”

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