January 19, 2007
LOS ANGELES -- The number of children being diagnosed with autism is on the rise. Improved detection could be one reason. A new study has many experts believing environmental toxins may play a bigger role than you may think.
Many parents believe that there is a link between mercury in vaccines and autism.
NBC4's Dr. Bruce Hensel said that has not been proven and the findings suggest there may be links to other toxins.
The Centers for Disease Control said autism spectrum disorders affect one in every 166 children. The cause is still unknown, but there is focus on a possible link between the condition and pesticides.
"There's so much we don't know about the long term and short term effects of pesticides on the developing child," said Dr. Claudia Miller.
Miller's research focuses on what's called gene environmental interactions. She said genes alone aren't responsible for causing autism. Environmental toxins like pesticides, household cleaners, lead and synthetic fragrances may also play roles.
"Our understanding of the gene, the actual delineation of the human genome is only in the last few years and we're a long way from figuring out which genes are involved with detoxification of particular exposures," said Miller.
Stephanie Castor is in the final weeks of her pregnancy. She's been extremely cautious about what cleaners and pesticides she keeps in her home.
"I instinctively knew to stay away from things that had many powerful odors, vapors. And I just always read labels in general," said Castor.
Miller also suggests making simple changes to your cleaning products like using fragrance-free laundry detergents and fabric softeners. Also, switch from bleach and other strong cleaning products to vinegar and baking soda.
And while some may think making these changes are overly cautious, Miller said it is better to err on the side of safety.
Hensel said there is no cause and effect proof that these things cause autism and just that using a lot may increase risk.
The Autism Society of America has launched a special edition of their magazine the autism advocate and launched a new environmental health section on their Web site to help highlight the environmental links to autism and raise awareness of them.
Autism occurs in about one in 166 births.
Exposure to environmental toxins during fetal development or early childhood may interfere with normal development of the nervous system.
Investigators at UT Health Science Center-San Antonio are looking at the possible interaction between genes and pesticides in the development of autism.
For more details, refer to our comprehensive research summary.
For information about the study at UT Health Science Center-San Antonio, call (210) 567-7407.
For information about other projects looking at environmental toxins:
Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/region09/childhealth/autism.html
Healthy Children Project, http://www.healthychildrenproject.org/exposures/index.html
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, http://www.niehs.nih.gov/oc/factsheets/ceh