Do Toxins Cause Autism?

It took a few thousand years for us to realize the severity of lead poisoning, although the signs were certainly there: “crazy as a painter” was a catch phrase rooted in the demented behavior of lead-poisoned painters in antiquity. Mad as a hatter? Before the use of mercury was banned in the 1940s, hat makers used it in their craft–which left many of them drooling, twitching, lurching, befuddled and mumbling. Seems to me that when a segment of the population is suffering from a mysterious condition, it would be prudent to examine the possibility of environmental toxins as the culprit.

Lead, mercury, asbestos–can phthalates be next? Phthalates, called “plasticizers,” are a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible or resilient and also as solvents. Phthalates, as described by the EWG are nearly ubiquitous in modern society, found in, among other things, toys, food packaging, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, wall coverings, lubricants, adhesives, detergents, nail polish, hair spray and shampoo.

According to a recent story in The New York Times, concern about toxins in our products and the environment used to be a fringe view, but now concern has moved into the medical mainstream. Toxicologists, endocrinologists and oncologists seem to be the most alarmed. One area of particular concern? The relationship between toxins and autism.
Autism was first identified in 1943–recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control now claim that autism disorders affect almost 1 percent of children, and suspicions are increasing that the cause may be environmental toxins. An article in a forthcoming issue of a peer-reviewed medical journal, Current Opinion in Pediatrics says that “historically important, proof-of-concept studies that specifically link autism to environmental exposures experienced prenatally.” It adds that the probability of many chemicals “have potential to cause injury to the developing brain and to produce neurodevelopmental disorders.”
The author of the study, Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and chairman of the school’s department of preventive medicine, told the Times reporter that he is increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.
In the meantime, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives also suggested the risks. Researchers measured the levels of phthalates in the urine of pregnant women. Among women with higher levels of certain phthalates (those commonly found in fragrances, shampoos, cosmetics and nail polishes), their children were more likely to display disruptive behavior.
As quoted in the Times story, “there are diseases that are increasing in the population that we have no known cause for,” said Alan M. Goldberg, a professor of toxicology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “Breast cancer, prostate cancer, autism are three examples. The potential is for these diseases to be on the rise because of chemicals in the environment.”
For now nobody has a clear answer about the cause of autism, but until more is known I recommend that we rely on the precautionary principle and  do our best to avoid phthalates and other toxins that find their way into our lives through plastics and personal care products. At the very worst, it can’t hurt–at best, declining numbers in cancer and autism. What are your thoughts on this? Do you have personal experience with someone with autism? Please share.

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