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Do Toxins Cause Autism?

with 7 comments

Care2 posted by Melissa Breyer Feb 26, 2010

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.

Related Stories:
Top 15 Dangerous Ingredients in Skincare
5 Guidelines for Keeping Plastics Out of Your Kids


7 Responses

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  1. A toxin is a poison that has been produced by a living organism. Phthalates, although they are poisons, are not toxins, because they are manmade.


    February 27, 2010 at 11:17 am

  2. I almost changed the title of the article to “Do Chemicals Cause Autism?” but since I didn’t write it, I left it as is. On second thought, I probably should have made the change.


    February 27, 2010 at 11:34 am

  3. LINK to Robert Kennedy video explaining
    the environmental connection to autism:


    April 2, 2010 at 9:49 am

  4. David O. Carpenter, MD, who has studied the effects of PCB exposure in the Akwesasne Indian reservation in upstate New York and in Anniston, Alabama, formerly home to the facility that manufactured most of the PCBs in the United States, commented on the study for Medscape Psychiatry.

    “This is a convincing study that adds to the strong body of evidence that both prenatal and postnatal exposures to PCBs alter mental function,” said Dr. Carpenter, who is director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, Rensselaer, New York.

    Dr. Carpenter added that at the Akwesasne reservation, he found clear evidence of cognitive deficits in adolescents who had been exposed to PCBs in infancy, whether through breastfeeding or environmental exposure. “The cognitive deficits were in proportion to the PCB levels,” he said.

    Reduced IQ, Ability to Cope with Frustration

    “PCBs interfere with cognitive function. I’m not at all surprised that Park et al found prenatal effects. I am somewhat surprised that they found a stronger association with dioxin-like PCBs,” Dr. Carpenter said.

    Dr. Carpenter added the effects seen in adolescents are likely a result of both prenatal and subsequent environmental exposure, and that PCBs, lead, methylmercury, and secondhand tobacco smoke all seem to affect neurodevelopment. He said that an important area for future study will be to determine whether the effects are additive in children who are multiply exposed.

    ‘We found a 4-to-5-point decrement in IQ in children exposed either to PCBs or to lead, and we found that the effect is not just that intelligence is reduced. The ability to deal with frustration is also reduced, which may have important social implications in terms of violent behavior and exposure to environmental toxins,” he said.

    The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Slovak Ministry of Health, and the European Commission. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

    NeuroToxicology. Published online September 4, 2009. Abstract



    April 2, 2010 at 9:51 am

  5. Thanks Larry for both the article and the link!


    April 2, 2010 at 11:26 am

  6. About time! Someone with some information on this. You’d think considering how popular Comic Book Adaptations are nowadays, some information would actually be pretty easy to find. Apparently not. Anyway, thanks for this! I appreciate it!


    December 9, 2010 at 6:27 am

  7. I was born in 1992. I have aspergers syndrome


    February 20, 2011 at 10:54 pm

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