Monday, March 15, 2010

Autism and Toxins - Living On Earth

This week's Living on Earth has a fascinating story about the role of environmental toxins in explaining the recent spike in cases of autism.  Here's an excerpt of LOE host Jeff Young's conversation with Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai School of Medicine:

YOUNG: The Centers for Disease Control estimate six out of every thousand U.S. children are diagnosed with some form of autism. The apparent increase in autism has alarmed parents and stymied scientists searching for a cause. Dr. Philip Landrigan argues in a medical journal that we should look to our environment for answers on autism. He's a professor of pediatrics and community and preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Landrigan thinks a sustained focus on chemical exposures in the womb could tell us more than genetic studies have.
LANDRIGAN: I'll begin by pointing out that there has been some very elegant genetic research done over the past five or ten years that has very successfully identified a number of genes and gene mutations that are responsible for a certain number of cases of autism. All together these genetic causes are responsible for something like 20 or 25 percent of cases. Well, that's very important work and it's very important to know that there are genetic causes, but at the same time those findings leave the causation of something like 75 percent of cases of autism unexplained.
YOUNG: So, genetics alone can't explain this, what evidence do we have that environmental exposures might be a cause here?
LANDRIGAN: We know from other research on toxic chemicals that the developing human brain is very vulnerable to environmental toxins, we know about lead, we know about mercury, we know about PCBs, we know about certain pesticides, and for each of those chemicals we know that if the developing brain is exposed to the chemical early in development, especially in the early months of pregnancy, that the potential is very high for injury to the developing brain.
The second line of evidence I would call proof of principle. And this is the finding that there is a short list of chemicals that have been directly found to be linked to autism. The fact that early life exposure to these drugs can cause autism in certain children says to me that it's possible other drugs, other environmental chemicals might also be responsible for some cases of autism
I heard this story on the radio yesterday, and was excited to share it, as I've seen the impact that having an autistic child has had on the lives of friends. I find it infuriating that companies out there are profiting from business processes that put these kinds of toxins out into our environment.

I'm glad to see that high-level people, including experts at esteemed institutions like Mt Sinai School of Medicine, are taking notice.  Hopefully we soon see the kind of progress toward banning these chemicals that has resulted in victories from the the phase-out of lead from gasoline to the recent phase out of BPA from common household products.

Listen to the story>>

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