The spotlight is falling on toxic chemicals in the environment for the sharp rise in autism cases worldwide.
Autism experts in the US, where 1 in 110 children have the condition, are urging reform of the country’s chemical laws. They have warned about the effects of toxins on pregnant women and the developing fetus that could lead to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
Donna Ferullo, director of program research at the Autism Society of America, said: “Lead, mercury and other neurotoxic chemicals have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe.” She added: “With a combination of insults, little brains reach a tipping point.”
Ferullo made her comments at an American conference organized by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which represents more than 11 million people including parents and professionals. It has called for urgent reform of outdated American laws regulating chemicals.
In the UK, a link between environmental pollution and the rise in autism cases has been made in Autism Eye magazine by Dr Daniel Goyal (pictured), who treats children with autism at the Breakspear Hospital in Hertfordshire. Dr Goyal writes in the forthcoming summer issue of Autism Eye: “The rise in ASD cases correlates directly with the increasing toxic load we each have to process.” He added: “Our children are the first to suffer the consequences of environmental pollution.”
According to Dr Goyal, chronic toxicity seen in children with autism can give rise to the secondary conditions that often affect them, such as inflammatory bowel disease, auto immune disorders and mitochondrial disease.
A 2010 study by the US-based ‘Mind, Disrupted’ biomonitoring project sponsored by the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative tested 12 volunteers for suspected neurotoxic chemicals. All of the participants were found to carrying mercury, lead, BPA and 13 other toxic substances.
A peer-reviewed study published in May in the Environmental Science & Technology journal found 80 per cent of products used by babies and toddlers, such as car seats and changing mats, contained flame retardants considered toxic. (Read more on this in Autism Eye’s summer issue).
Andy Igrejas, national campaign director with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, pointed out that there are 84,000 chemicals in commerce and only five have been restricted.
Scant data has been collected on the effects of most chemicals used in everyday products on the developing nervous system since 1976, when the Toxic Substances Control Act was introduced in the US.
Earlier this year New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the still-pending Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. Igrejas’s view is that if introduced, it could help alleviate autism and other serious health problems.
Already, 18 states in the US have enacted 78 laws restricting chemicals in some way. The move has been backed by the American Association of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and other professional bodies calling for reform.
In Europe, governments have until 2018 to implement wide-ranging legislation to control the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products. The EU-wide rules, known as Reach (an acronym of registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals), are designed to make firms prove that the thousands of chemicals they use in products from cars to clothes are safe. It is also meant to encourage the replacement of toxic chemicals with safer ones.