Autism spectrum disorder is America’s fastest growing developmental disability. Rates have risen more than 600% in 20 years, to the point that now one out of every 88 children—or one out of every 70 boys—is statistically destined for diagnosis.
Why the dramatic increase in the autism spectrum diagnosis? Increased identification of the condition comes into play when looking at a data spike. But six hundred percent? More and more, doctors and scientists are pointing the finger at the environment.
In 2012, a group of autism experts published a list of chemicals and heavy metals believed to be behind the surge in autism and other neurological problems.
Lead, mercury, and other neurotoxic chemicals have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe. The list includes lead, mercury, PCBs, organochlorine and organophosphate pesticides, vehicular air pollution, flame retardants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), BPA and PCB chemicals in nonstick cookware.
“We have very powerful, very sophisticated tools we can use to measure chemicals at very low levels,” said Phil Landrigan, Chair of Preventative Medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York and co-author of the list. “It’s now possible to connect early exposure to problems in childhood.”
“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,” said Donna Ferullo, Director of Program Research at The Autism Society. “Lead, mercury, and other neurotoxic chemicals have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe.”
Just to be clear: There is no clear data on why autism spectrum disorder occurs. Most scientists agree that there are many factors—from genetic to environmental—which may increase risk for ASD. Environmental factors include chemicals, infectious agents, and various health problems in the parents.
Hundreds of genes have been associated with autism spectrum disorder, some of which are inherited and some of which are found in people with autism but not in their parents. Through the study of epigenetics, many scientists are focusing on the non-genetic—i.e. environmental and developmental—factors that cause the genes to behave differently. These are changes that may be passed on through multiple generations.
As Dick Jackson, Chair of UCLA’s Environmental Health Sciences Department once told me, “The genes load the gun. The environment pulls the trigger.”
Here are seven things you can do to avoid environmental triggers for autism spectrum disorder:
- Test your home for lead. If you have high levels, test your family’s blood. If those levels are high, contact experts at Lead Free America to advise you on next steps.
- If you’re pregnant, avoid fish; look for safe, low-mercury fish to feed your family.
- Look for TB117 labels to avoid furniture and baby products made with foam that’s been treated with flame retardants. Wash hands regularly to reduce levels of PBDEs your family is exposed to.
- Eat organic to avoid pesticides. Follow EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists of fruits and vegetables.
- Keep house plants that filter air, and install air filters if possible.
- Use BPA-free plastic, glass or metal to store food and drink; never microwave food in plastic.
- Avoid nonstick cookware.
This may seem like a lot, at first. But these steps are totally doable—and so worth it. Don’t you agree?