Why We Need Chemical Reform
June 10, 2011
Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States: It has increased 600% in the last two decades.1 This epidemic within one generation cannot be solely accounted for by genetic causes or wider diagnostic criteria or even increased awareness. Both past twin studies, in which twins have the same genes, but different environments2, and current research efforts3 implicate environmental exposures and gene- environment interactions in the development of autism. Researchers are focused on the effects of environmental exposures both on parents and on their unborn child. There is much more work to do to uncover the mechanisms, but the concept is this: developing fetuses, young children and their parents are exposed to many more chemicals than in the 1970s, when the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 became law.
Today, to a mother carrying BPA, mercury, phlatates, and brominated flame retardants, is born a baby with 200 contaminants already in cord blood.4 The developing brain is exquisitely sensitive to environmental exposures from conception through childhood, and infants and toddlers are often more highly exposed to toxic chemicals by virtue of their small body weight, faster metabolism, and tendency to mouth objects and proximity to the ground where some chemicals reside in dust. Toys, baby care products, crib mattresses, baby bottles and even nursing pillows are imbued with toxic substances unregulated and untested for human safety as well as for their effect on the developing brain. For example, lead, methyl-mercury, arsenic, and toluene have been identified as known causes of neurodevelopmental disorders, yet are poorly regulated, widely available in the manufacturing channels, and not tested in small constant doses or in combination.
During the years following TSCA, we have learned that lead, mercury and other neurotoxic chemicals have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe.5 Exposure to these chemicals at even minute doses during development can cause lifelong effects. Add to this early life constellation more polluted air and water, more viruses, more processed foods, and weakened links in the immune system if one is vulnerable to autism. In some complex combination of insults, little brains reach a tipping point.
Researchers continue to tease out the aspects of this multifactorial breakdown. Meanwhile, we live, breathe and start our families in the presence of toxic chemical mixtures and constant low level toxic exposures, in stark contrast to the way chemicals are tested for safety. In Mind Disrupted6, a 2010 biomonitoring study from the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative, we tested 12 Americans living near nothing unusual (www.mindisrupted.org). All 12 showed evidence of toxic chemicals in their blood and tissues: mercury, arsenic, triclosan, BPA, phthalates and more. No one is exempt. Some are more vulnerable.
We need chemical policy that protects our most vulnerable citizens. We need to cradle the unborn in an environment safe for brain development and welcome them to a world which removes threats to their healthy continued growth. Because autism is a whole body condition, removing toxic chemicals from the environment of a person with autism also means their persistent medical problems like gut disease, allergies, rashes and seizures may settle to a better quality of life.
1 Hertz-Picciotto and Delwiche, “ The Rise in Autism and The Age at Diagnosis,” Epidemiology: 20:1, Jan 2009
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