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Is Autism Environmentally Triggered?

By Robyn O'Brien for

Over the past quarter of a century, autism has increased a staggering 1,500 percent, while ADHD, asthma and allergies have also skyrocketed, changing the landscape of childhood. No longer are our children, who have earned the title “Generation Rx” guaranteed a drug-free, toxin-free childhood. Instead, they are increasingly being diagnose with conditions that our grandmothers may never have heard of.

And this week’s announcement from the Centers for Disease Control that the rates of autism in American children appear to have increased again, to 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 88 children (with boys outnumbering girls 5 to 1) begs the question: what has changed?

According to CNN, in 2000 and 2002, the autism estimate was about 1 in 150 children. Two years later 1 in 125 8-year-olds had autism. In 2006, the number was 1 in 110, and the newest data — from 2008 — suggests 1 in 88 children have autism.

This simultaneous rise in all of these conditions, deemed the 4 As is not coincidental, according to Dr. Kenneth Bock, a leading expert, friend and author of Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma and Allergies. All of these disorders, which he calls the 4 As (allergies, autism, ADHD and asthma) share a similar mechanism: an underlying genetic vulnerability, triggered by environmental insults. In other words, if genetic has loaded the gun on these kids, environmental toxins are pulling the trigger.

And he’s not the only one saying it. “Many environmental contaminants have been conclusively shown to affect the developing nervous system, causing a range of performance deficits,” writes Dr. Stephen Gilbert in the Collaborative on Health and the Environment’s Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative, published in November 2007. In February 2010, the New York Times asked “Do Toxins Cause Autism?”

In light of the meteoric rise in these statistics, we can’t seem to get to the answer quickly enough.

Dr. Bock refers to this sudden onslaught of environmental contaminants and toxins as “synergistic toxicity,” citing how even so-called “safe” levels of chemicals can collide with disastrous effects.

And while we live in an age of unprecedented opportunity and technological information, we have not yet conducted the tests to address this concern. As cited in the CNN article, ” we’ve got better diagnosis, broader diagnosis, better awareness, and roughly 50% of ‘We don’t know.’”

So just as we held beakers in a science class as kid, one in each hand with no ill effect, it is that sudden combination, that collision, and its unknown, untested effects, “synergistic toxicity” effects, that concerns researchers today.

But rather than looking backwards and focus on finger pointing and the ‘he-said/she-said’ scientific debates that tend to ensue, our responsibility, our moral compass, should point us to the obligation that we have to heal our children. To take steps to reduce their exposures to environmental contaminants that have been removed from products in use by children in other countries: chemicals like the hormone disruptor, bisphenol A (which thankfully, Campbells has announced they will be pulling from the linings of their soup cans) or the artificial dyes and colorants like the caramel color that Coca Cola has announced it is altering in its sodas due to cancer concerns.

Because the fact is that we have over 80,000 chemicals and toxicants now found in our food and environment. The EPA has evaluated only 200 of these 80,000 and banned only five. So almost 80,000 chemicals were allowed into our lives, introduced because they had not yet been proven dangerous (while other countries all too often held off because they had not yet been proven safe).

And while correlation is not causation, mothers and  grandmothers, parents and caregivers, also know that genetics don’t change this quickly. The environment does.

So we must come together, as parents, caregivers, schools and the medical profession, to leverage our collective insight, experiences and combined talents, in order to protect the health of the American children. We have learned that 9 out of 10 cancers are environmentally triggered and only five to ten percent of them are inherited. Is autism the same? Given the current runaway rates, we can not wait to act but must exercise precaution.

Because while our children may only represent 30% of the population, they are 100% of our future. And if the rates of autism are a leading indicator, there is nothing more urgent that our society could be doing than stemming the tide of this and other conditions like obesity, allergies and diabetes. Because if you think about it, nothing less than the future of our country depends on it.


By Robyn O'Brien

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault


Reader Comments (2)

Imagine living in a country without secrets. It's coming folks!

Be in~courage!


March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIN-B-TWEEN

The following statement is not considered true.
"And while correlation is not causation, mothers and grandmothers, parents and caregivers, also know that genetics don’t change this quickly. The environment does."

Look up the latest work in epigenetics, mutagenics and the Chinese research into mRNA from plants found in mitochondrial DNA.

April 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ Goodwon

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