Archives for category: Autism

You can link to an illuminating podcast interview, titled “Better Living Through Chemistryfrom the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), here.

Here is PSR’s brief description of the interview:

We depend on chemicals in consumer products to perform as expected, and to be safe. But our regulatory system is not adequately protecting us from potential hazards in our food cans, diapers, shower curtains, baby bottles, and other consumer products. Listen to Washington State PSR President, Dr. Steven Gilbert, a toxicologist, together with pediatric urologist and Phsicians for Social Responsibility (“PSR”) board member Dr. Rich Grady, discuss chemicals policy in an illuminating radio interview, touching on “chemical trespass,” the precautionary approach to chemical regulation, and the importance of state-level policy change. They also discuss the federal bills, currently before Congress, intended to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act — including the need to strengthen these bills. The interview was aired on Seattle radio station KEXP on June 19, 2010.

Listen to the interview here (mp3, 10 MB).

From NPR Blog:

The number of children diagnosed with autism jumped 23 percent between 2006 and 2008, according to the latest federal estimate.

Now, 1 in 88 children has been diagnosed with autism, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rapid rise prompted calls to declare the developmental disorder an epidemic. “This is a national emergency in need of a national plan,” Mark Roithmayr, president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said at a CDC media briefing Thursday.

But CDC scientists weren’t about to go that far. Instead, they said that most if not all of that startling increase could be due to better recognition of the disorder by parents, doctors and teachers.

“There is the possibility that the increase in cases is entirely the result of better detection,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the CDC, said at the briefing.

From 2002 to 2008, the number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder has risen 78 percent, according to this ongoing study, which tracks diagnoses among 8-year-olds in 14 states. It was published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The survey counted not just children who had been given an official diagnosis of autism, but those whose school or medical records included descriptions of behavior typical of the disorder. Those methods have been consistent throughout the study.

Because there is no known cause for autism, the question of what’s fueled the swift rise in diagnoses over the past 20 years has been a major point of contention between advocates and scientists.

“In very much respect to Dr. Frieden, only part of the increase is better diagnoses,” Roithmayr said at the CDC today. “There is a great unknown. Something is going on here that we don’t know.”

Autism Speaks and other advocacy groups have long pressed the federal government to do more research on environmental causes of autism, including the unproven theory that childhood vaccines caused autism. Scientists have tended to focus on genetic causes of autism, and factors such as advanced parental age and premature birth, both of which increase a child’s risk of autism.



Mount Sinai’s Dr. Landrigan discusses the rise of autism in the United States. The Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai has studied the causes of autism and found that chemical exposures can contribute to autism and other learning disabilities.

To view Mount Sinai’s Children’s Health Campaign containing tips, facts, videos, articles and more on important children’s health issues such as diabetes, autism, asthma, allergies and nutrition, click here.

To view the Children’s Environmental Health Center, click here.

From Scranton Times-Courier:

The figure is so astounding it appears to be a misprint at first glance.

One in 110.

That’s the number of American children living with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), based on the most recently published estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Boys are four to five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with an ASD. And with a 10 to 17 percent annual growth rate, it is the country’s fastest growing developmental disability, according to the Autism Society.

A 2005 census study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare’s Bureau of Autism Services estimated about 20,000 Pennsylvanians, children and adults, were living with autism, although the study noted that the number was on the conservative side. The bureau now believes that number has grown to between 25,000 and 30,000 state residents.

* * *

While a clear and definitive cause for autism has yet to be determined, most physicians believe genetic makeup plays a significant role. Children who have a sibling or parent with an ASD are at a higher risk of also having one, and ASDs tend to occur more often in people who have certain other medical conditions or genetic disorders, such as Fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis and Down syndrome.

“Really, where we’re sort of at is that the genetic investigations are at their earliest stages,” Dr. Challman said. “A variety of genes have shown to be involved in autism. They have to do with how the brain organizes itself. Brain circuitry. But we don’t know what they do. We just know they affect autism.”

* * *

There may also be environmental factors related to the cause of autism, but, as of yet, “there’s no clear evidence,” Dr. Challman said.

Right now, there are countless studies investigating a number of things that might be a potential environmental contributor, be it prenatally or during the child’s early development. The list includes prenatal vitamins, neurotoxins in the air, water and food supply, industrial waste, levels of bisphenol A (BPA) in kids’ canned foods, food additives and preservatives and pesticides, said Donna Ferullo, director of program research for the Autism Society.

Even maternal stress and age at the time of the child’s birth are being studied, Ms. Ferullo said.

“We live in this soup of low-level exposure. There’s so many threats to the developing brain that we weren’t exposed to years ago,” Ms. Ferullo said. “Environment is suspect, but not clarified. There are numerous environmental factors under investigation. The problem is isolating it.”

For years, there have been fears among many parents’ groups that vaccines were a potential cause of autism. This was due in large part to a study that came out of England several years ago that implicated the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella. That study, though, was later found to be fraudulent, Dr. Challman said.

* * *

“So there was some information that was published and it was incorrect and it made people scared,” Dr. Challman said. “It’s a belief that’s not based in science. There’s a mountain of evidence that exonerates vaccines.”

As the CDC collects more data and enhances its surveillance techniques, researchers will begin to understand more about the disease, Mr. Baio said. One recent development, he said, is the establishment of a controlled testing of three groups – children with autism, children with other developmental disabilities and children who appear to be developing typically.

“We’ll be able to compare and contrast across these three groups. The hope of that is we’ll identity some factors, be it risk factors, or things that can assist us with identifying children earlier,” he said. “Then they can get autism-specific treatments much earlier, which would have a much greater outcome.”

“In a lot of ways, we’re behind other fields of study,” Dr. Challman said. “It is frustrating for families. Sometimes the wheels of science do turn rather slowly, but if we persist, we make progress.”


From San Francisco Chronicle:

Environmental factors play a more important role in causing autism than previously assumed and, surprisingly, an even larger role than genetics, according to a new study out of UCSF and Stanford that could force a dramatic swing in the focus of research into the developmental disorder.

The study, published in Monday’s issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, looked at 192 pairs of twins in California and, using a mathematical model, found that genetics account for about 38 percent of the risk of autism, and environmental factors account for about 62 percent.

Previous twin studies had suggested that autism was highly inheritable, with genetics accounting for roughly 90 percent of all cases worldwide. As such, much recent research into autism has focused on tracking down the genes and unlocking the complex genetic codes that are associated with autism.

“We’re not trying to say there isn’t a genetic component – quite the opposite. But for most individuals with autism spectrum disorder, it’s not simply a genetic cause,” said Neil Risch, director of the UCSF Institute for Human Genetics, who designed the study.

Autism doctors and patient advocates said the study, which will probably be followed up with similar studies of twins and other siblings, could have a significant impact on research into the disorder.


From the Utah News:

Could Utah’s high autism rates be related to Salt Lake County’s large number of toxic chemical releases?

University of Utah researchers say the question deserves more study after their preliminary review shows children with autism spectrum disorders and other intellectual disabilities are more likely to have been born near industries that emit toxic chemicals or heavy metals.

“If you take this combined with the other studies [showing links between pollution and autism], it’s pointing to something that we need to seriously look at,” said Judith Pinborough-Zimmerman, research assistant professor in the U.’s Department of Psychiatry.

She and researchers from the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health and the Utah Department of Health presented their findings at The International Society for Autism Research conference last month in San Diego.

They examined the maternal addresses found on birth certificates of children born in 1993 and 1994 in Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties who were later diagnosed with autism or other mental disabilities. They also mapped the addresses of children without a known neurodevelopmental disorder.

They found that children born to mothers who lived within a mile of what are called Toxic Release Inventory sites that emit certain chemicals and heavy metals were more likely to have those problems.


From the Sacramento Bee:

One of the largest and most comprehensive studies on how the environment is affecting U.S. children’s health is about to be launched – and researchers want Sacramento kids to play a key role in it.

Today, researchers and public health officials are holding a launch celebration at the Sacramento Zoo in Land Park where they will recruit potential participants – looking for women who are considering pregnancy or are pregnant.

Sacramento was selected in 2007 as a site for the study, which Congress authorized in 2000 with the Children’s Health Act. It is one of 37 centers nationwide responsible for conducting the research.

The observational study will follow 100,000 children from before they are born until age 21.

It will examine a vast range of environmental impacts on children’s development, such as the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in breast milk or how neighborhoods and families influence children’s risk for diabetes, said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, principal investigator for the National Children’s Study in Sacramento.

“There’s been a rapid increase in a number of conditions in childhood that we didn’t used to have – obesity, diabetes, autism, asthma,” said Hertz-Picciotto, chief of the UC Davis School of Medicine’s Division of Environmental and Occupational Health. “We are interested in the factors that could be in food, in the water, in our household products, in our neighborhoods that are affecting children.”

And those clues may in turn lead researchers to interventions, medical approaches and cures.

“Because we’ll be combining data from all over the country, we hope to find some answers to causes and contributing factors and ways to reduce those conditions or make them less severe,” she said.


From California Watch:

Researchers from UC Davis determined that California babies conceived in March had a significantly higher rate of autism, perhaps adding to a body of research that links spring and summer pesticide exposure to birth defects.

The report, which was published in the journal Epidemiology, found that children conceived in March have a 16 percent greater chance of being diagnosed with autism than children conceived in July. Researchers reviewed birth records for 7 million children born in California between 1990 and 2002.

The findings are a “starting point for further inquiry” into whether there is a connection between the increased autism incidence and additional exposure to pesticides that comes with spring and early summer planting, the report says. If such a connection is made, it would align with other studies showing that babies conceived in the spring have a higher rate of birth defects, such as Down syndrome and spina bifida.

Other research has found ties between occupational pesticide exposure among farm workers and birth defects. In one high-profile case, three babies born within three weeks of each other in February 2005 all had similar birth defects. Their mothers worked for the same tomato grower and were exposed to similar chemicals. Researchers could not determine that the pesticides clearly caused the birth defects, but called the incident a “cause for concern.”

Researchers delved into a rash of birth defects identified in rural Kettleman City, a California town surrounded by agriculture fields, but were not able to pinpoint a cause.

A study released last year showed that pesticides, likely from residue on food, were linked to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder in children who were 8 to 15 years old. That study found that kids with higher-than-average levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine were also nearly twice as likely to have ADHD.

The California Department of Public Health has also studied the issue and found that certain types of birth defects are associated with women who said they were exposed to household gardening pesticides and those who lived within a quarter-mile of agricultural fields.

Researchers have repeatedly concluded that more research is needed to better understand how planting season and pesticides relate to birth defects.


From PBS’s

The rise in the number of reported autism cases has caused a surge in research to find the causes. Robert MacNeil speaks with four leading researchers: Dr. Gerald Fischbach of the Simons Foundation, Dr. David Amaral of the MIND Institute, Dr. Martha Herbert of Harvard University and Dr. Craig Newschaffer of Drexel University. It’s part three of the Autism Now series of reports.

Note to regular Upstream readers:  I will be interviewing Dr. Herbert in June of 2011. ~eh

From PBS’s NewsHour:

In the second report in his Autism Now series, Robert MacNeil investigates why the number of children with autism is increasing in the U.S. He meets children at different points on the autism spectrum and gets several views on the increase in prevalence — from better diagnosis to a variety of environmental factors.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

From PBS:

In the first of six reports in his Autism Now series, former NewsHour anchor Robert MacNeil takes viewers on a visit with his 6-year-old grandson, Nick, to see how autism affects the whole family. Nick experiences autism not just as a brain-development disorder, but also as physical ailments affecting his whole body.

From the Boston Globe:

[Upstream Contributor] Dr. Ana Soto won’t use plastic in the microwave.

R. Thomas Zoeller uses an iPhone application that flags products with potentially dangerous chemicals to help him make wise choices at the grocery store.

Dr. Perry E. Sheffield washes her hands often — as much to get rid of potentially dangerous chemicals as germs.

It’s nearly impossible to prove scientifically that certain diseases are caused by household chemicals, such as bisphenol-A, phthalates, and flame retardants, which are found in everything from kitchen cleaners to baby creams, carpeting to tin cans.

But as research accumulates about their potential dangers, and rates of diseases that are plausibly caused by these chemicals rise, these three scientists are anxious enough to make changes in their own homes.

“Effectively, we’re conducting experiments on our population,’’ said Sheffield, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Researchers long ago proved that chemicals like bisphenol-A and phthalates can disrupt development in animals by interfering with their hormones. Now, scientists are increasingly demonstrating that these chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, might be harmful to people, too.

“What’s happening to rats and mice is an indicator of what’s happening to humans,’’ said Soto, professor of cellular biology at Tufts University School of Medicine.

In one study of 427 men published in December, those who had the most bisphenol-A — known commonly as BPA — in their urine reported the highest levels of sexual problems, from decreased desire to lower satisfaction with their sex lives. In a 2009 study of 250 toddlers, girls (but not boys) were more likely to act aggressively if their mothers had high urine levels of BPA during pregnancy.

And a national survey of more than 1,400 adults showed that people with higher concentrations of BPA in their urine were more likely to have been diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

None of these studies are conclusive evidence of harm, the researchers said, because they do not meet the gold standard of medical research. To do that, scientists would have to study two large populations of people — one exposed to a chemical and one not — potentially for decades, to see if there are health differences between the two. Since virtually everyone is exposed to the major chemicals, and since our lifestyles differ in so many different ways, it would be nearly impossible to conduct such a study. Instead, researchers look to animal studies and weaker human studies to build a case.

The scientists interviewed for this story said enough data has accumulated to suggest that these chemicals might be harmful — and that we should take precautions as if they were.

It’s scientifically plausible that these chemicals account for some cases of autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and autoimmune problems like allergies and asthma, said Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Exposure and Human Health Committee.


Daily Green: Wanted: Chemicals that cause autism,

Dr. Philip Landrigan is rounding up a posse in search of one of America’s most elusive evildoers: The cause of autism, which afflicts as many as 1 in 80 American children. Though the soft-spoken, gentlemanly pediatrician doesn’t cut the figure of a sheriff, he used Wild West language to describe the hunt he and his fellow scientists have embarked on.

“We want a ‘Most Wanted Chemicals’ list. We want a ‘Dirty Dozen,'” he told the audience Wednesday at Exploring the Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities, a conference organized by the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, where Landrigan is dean of global health and chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine. Landrigan received a 2010 Heart of Green Award from The Daily Green.

Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental disability with a range of effects on intelligence and sociability, increased 57% between 2002 and 2006, according to Colleen Boyle, acting director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. And while the center’s last set of statistics drew alarming headlines about 1 in 110 children now being diagnosed with autism, she said that’s an average; the rate could be as high as 1 in 80 (or as low as 1 in 240).

As recently as 2005, the increase in diagnoses was attributed to just that: An increase in diagnoses. Doctors and parents, it was thought, were more aware of the symptoms of the disease, the definition of the Autism Spectrum Disorder grew more expansive, government services were more widely available and the stigma associated with the illness was disappearing – all of which contributed to an increase in diagnosis that had little or no basis in actual increased illness.

But the rates of disease are actually increasing, not just the diagnosis or treatment of disease, according to research by Irva Hertz-Picciotto and colleagues at the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the University of California-Davis.

And that’s just one reason genetics alone can’t explain autism. Genetics clearly plays a role – if one identical twin has autism, 70% of his siblings do, too. But even scientists sometimes mistake a genetic basis of disease for an explanation of its causes: the environment is still the trigger for the expression of genes. (And scientists are only now exploring the epigenetics of disease – not just the genes themselves, in other words, but their place in the DNA sequence.)

The question is: What are those environmental triggers that cause autism? And when in the early development of a fetus does the trigger get pulled? The triggers may or may not be synthetic chemicals: Other aspects of the environment that may affect gene expression include nutrients in food, physical factors like heat or radiation, and exposure to medications, alcohol and drugs.

The trigger-happy culprits are on the lam. Landrigan and his colleagues are hunting them down.

More . . .

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