Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Environmental Causes of Autism

Rates of autism nationwide have skyrocketed over the past 15 years. Scientific American reported this week on new research coming out of CA finding that chemicals in our environment may be responsible for most of the rise. Which common but easy-to-avoid chemicals are high on those scientists’ list of suspected culprits? Some are things you might guess, and others maybe not.

From the Scientific American article:
"Dozens of chemicals in the environment are neurodevelopmental toxins, which means they alter how the brain grows. Mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, lead, brominated flame retardants and pesticides are examples.
While exposure to some--such as PCBs--has declined in recent decades, others--including flame retardants used in furniture and electronics, and pyrethroid insecticides--have increased.
Mothers of autistic children were twice as likely to use pet flea shampoos, which contain organophosphates or pyrethroids, according to one study that has not yet been published. Another new study has found a link between autism and phthalates, which are compounds used in vinyl and cosmetics. Other household products such as antibacterial soaps also could have ingredients that harm the brain by changing immune systems, Hertz-Picciotto [the lead researcher in the study] said."

Yikes! Maybe you're a parent or want to be one, or maybe you aren't - either way take heed that these chemicals are at the top of a list of things that are bad for babies' brains, and it stands to reason that they're not great for your brain either. Many of the same chemicals listed here are also linked with increasingly common health problems in adults, like cancer and Parkinson's disease.

So here's your list of stuff to avoid based on this article, and some tips for avoiding them:
* Flame retardants found in furniture or electronics. Tips from Environmental Working Group on avoiding them.

* Pesticides in general, with special caution about pet shampoos and other products that contain organophosphates and pyrethroids. There are lots of ways to avoid these, but I'll share a couple of the most relevant highlights: 1) Eat organic. (It's a perfect time of year to join a CSA - more on that in an upcoming tip!) 2) Use non-toxic methods to get rid of home and garden pests - check out for more info, and also my past NewRaleigh posts. And, 3) if you have pets, use least-toxic alternatives to flea shampoo.

* Phthalates, found in vinyl, some cosmetics, and some plastics. Also associated with reproductive system disorders in male children. Augh. Tips for avoiding phthalates from the Pollution in People project.

* Antibacterial soaps, which commonly contain triclosan - actually a pesticide. Did you know that studies have found that regular soap gets just as much bacteria off your hands as antibacterial soap does? Tips for avoiding triclosan in soaps and other antibacterial products.

I'm planning to address each of these chemicals in more depth as part of my "Toxic Free NC Tips of the Week" series for If there's any in particular that you're keen to learn more about ASAP, please drop me a line.

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