Autism is on the rise, and has been for the last fifteen years. The problem is, nobody knows quite why this is the case. For a while, the culprit was deemed to be vaccines given to children to immunize against measles and other diseases. The vaccine theory was recently proven false, once again leaving the rising autism rates without a discernible cause.
But a new study reveals some startling new ideas: it turns out that environmental factors may play a significant role in determining whether a child develops autism or not, as opposed to strictly genetics.
According to the Scientific American:
"Dozens of chemicals in the environment are neurodevelopmental toxins, which means they alter how the brain grows. Mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, brominated flame retardants and pesticides are examples."
Scientists suspect that developing children and pregnant women who come into contact with such toxins could increase the risk of autism in the young ones.
So what can we do? Better safe than sorry, I say—it's a good idea to keep your children (or yourself if you're pregnant) away from potentially dangerous chemicals. So what should you be on the lookout for? Pesticides, lead, and flame retardants to start with—these should be easiest to identify and avoid. Mercury can be a little more slippery—seems it's been turning up in processed foods and high fructose corn syrup. Mercury is also in fish, and a number of older electronic display screens like LCDs. Do your best to avoid 'em. PCB use was banned in 1979, so it poses less of a threat. Whew. So is there anything else I should be watching out for, you ask. Well . . .
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 said.
Okay, okay. I know, this seems sort of frightening and overwhelming. But remember that this study is in its beginning stages?nothing is quite conclusive yet. That said, keeping your kid (and yourself) away from things like household toxins and pesticides is a good idea on its own, so why not play it safe, and cut the risk of autism while you're at it?