Environmental Causes of Autism and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders

For many years, autism research has focused on genetic factors. But researchers estimate that "the total fraction of ASD attributable to genetic inheritance may be about 30–40%." Now many are calling for more extensive research of environmental factors, including the tens of thousands of untested chemicals that individuals are exposed to via consumer products as well as the environment at large (air, water, soil). The brains of embryos and fetuses are believed to be especially susceptible to toxic chemicals. A workshop of leading researchers convened by the Mount Sinai Children's Environmental Health Center, with support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Autism Speaks, generated a list of "10 chemicals and mixtures widely distributed in the environment that are already suspected of causing developmental neurotoxicity":
  1. Lead
  2. Methylmercury 
  3. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  4. Organophosphate pesticides 
  5. Organochlorine pesticides 
  6. Endocrine disruptors 
  7. Automotive exhaust 
  8. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons 
  9. Brominated flame retardants 
  10. Perfluorinated compounds (Teflon)

Read more about sources of these 10 chemicals in this post from Moms Clean Air Force.

What You Can Do Now

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  1. I agree that we need to organize better to demand stronger environmental legislation and consumer protections. However, I have to wonder how much of the increase in the incidence of autism is actually due to greater awareness of autism and autism-spectrum disorders. If you broaden the category (as happens when we acknowledge the spectrum, rather than just a single form of autism) and increase awareness regarding what it encompasses, doesn't it stand to reason that the rate of diagnosis would go up?

    1. There is no doubt that some of the increase is due to better or more broadly defined diagnosis. The most recent jump (23 percent increase from 2006 to 2008) may be mostly due to changes in diagnosis. But according to what I've read, experts agree that diagnosis alone cannot explain the enormous increase in the number of ASD diagnoses over the past several decades. The 10 items listed above have all already been linked to autism by researchers and, at a minimum, deserve further study.

  2. Thank you for this post and for your information on what we can do now. It is devastating how many children are currently being diagnosed with autism. I am very excited about the Safe Chemicals Act which will help us prevent the use of harmful chemicals that are linked to autism.


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