Previously on The PediaBlog we’ve looked at how environmental toxins are affecting the health of our children (as well as ourselves) — especially on their developing brains. We’ve reviewed evidence of air pollution causing cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes), lung disease (asthma and lung cancer), and poor birth outcomes (premature births and infant mortality); radiation from nuclear power plants causing various cancers; and industrial contamination of the water supply causing a myriad of health concerns. We’ve reviewed a study that reveals a directly proportional relationship between the proximity to unconventional natural gas wells and the development of specific birth defects (congenital heart disease and neural tube defects). We’ve reported on the growing list of man-made chemicals that appear to be responsible for the increase seen over the last several years of neurodevelopment disorders — autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities.
Now a new study smacks us in the face (again) with more evidence that our children are being born “pre-polluted.” While more studies will need to be done to confirm the findings, Brenda Goodman says that prenatal exposure to pesticides might be an important cause of autism:
Pregnant women who live within a mile of spaces where commercial pesticides are applied appear to have an increased risk of having a child with autism, a new study suggests.
The risk that a child would develop autism appeared to be highest for women who lived near farms, golf courses and other public spaces that were treated with pesticides during the last three months of their pregnancies.
“Many of these compounds work on neurons. When they work on the insect, they’re dealing with the nervous system of the insect and basically incapacitating it,” said study author Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an environmental epidemiologist at the MIND Institute at University of California, Davis.
In adults, the brain is protected from many chemical exposures thanks to special filters that prevent many substances from crossing from the blood into the brain.
Hertz-Picciotto says that in young children, this blood-brain barrier isn’t fully formed, which may allow pesticides to reach vulnerable nerve cells just as they are making vital connections to each other.
Dr. Manny Alvarez puts the 60% higher risk with exposure in perspective:
Over the past 25 years, there has been an explosion in industrial globalization. On top of that, the substantial growth of the human population has created an increased demand for food that is cheap – but also in perfect and pristine condition.
When you go to a supermarket in the U.S. and look at the produce section, you see a rainbow of colors and unnaturally super-sized fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, they even look like wax figures! If you go to the poultry section, you see chickens that are as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger. These massive, perfectly-formed foods don’t sprout up naturally. They exist because of chemicals; pesticides allow vegetables to grow to mammoth proportions, while hormones and antibiotics pump up poultry to supernatural sizes.
Back in 2000, only one in 150 children in the U.S. was diagnosed with autism. Today, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 68 children is diagnosed with ASD. And within the most overpopulated and super-industrialized states in the U.S., autism rates are even worse. New Jersey has the highest rates of autism, with one in 45 children being diagnosed with some form of the disorder.
Joseph Stromberg wants more data:
Now, this isn’t proof that these pesticides cause autism: it shows the chemicals are correlated with it, but doesn’t rule out the possibility that both pesticide exposure and autism are caused by a third, unrelated factor. It’s also important to note that it involves airborne pesticides near farms, not residue on store-bought produce.
Still, given what we know about pesticides, it’s compelling enough to merit further research — and means, the researchers say, that women should avoid airborne pesticide exposure during pregnancy in the meantime.
Stromberg thinks we may be getting closer to the answer of what causes autism:
Most importantly, we already know that the pesticides in question are neurotoxins. They’re used on crops because they kill insects, but in high enough doses they also kill humans and other animals, chiefly by interfering with the proper functioning of the nervous system. Previous studies on rats have suggested exposure to these pesticides during pregnancy disrupts nervous system development, leading to behavioral changes later on.
We certainly don’t know that pesticides cause autism, but all this makes the idea look more like a genuine link, rather than a bogus correlation.
It seems clearer than ever that something is “turning on” the autism gene during prenatal development (before birth) and causing the rising incidence of autism in children. Other man-made chemicals have been implicated but none as much as organophosphate pesticides in this study. We know what doesn’t cause autism. We might not like what science is telling us, but, for the sake of our children, we do need to hear it — loud and clear.