Autism Risk Linked To Pesticide Exposure During Pregnancy

Today, the CDC’s current estimate is that one in every 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And while the methods for identifying children with ASDs rely firmly on assessing a subset of early childhood skills and behaviors, research into the causes of ASD continues to evolve. On June 23, a group of Californian doctors published a study that fortifies the link between prenatal pesticide exposure and the development of ASDs or other developmental delay (DD) in children. But what does that mean to you?

What did they study?

This study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, sought to determine whether pregnant women living close to sites where agricultural pesticides are used went on to have children with a higher incidence of developmental delay, including autism. To make their determinations, the doctors compared data from the California Pesticide Use Report with residential data from about a thousand families. Taking care to note the types of pesticides used on fields, the proximity of those fields to residential areas, and the confirmed cases of ASD/DD in children.

The data showed approximately one third of study participants lived within a mile of sites where commercial-grade pesticides were being used. Women in that group were around 60% more likely to have children who displayed developmental delay or autism indicators than other mothers in the study.

What does that mean?

The study shows a clear correlation between pesticide exposure during pregnancy and the eventual diagnosis of ASD or DD in the child. Some pesticides appear to have higher risks than others, and it’s also worth knowing that the timeframe for exposure was noted to have some impact on the amount of increased risk.

When it comes to ASD and DD, the incredibly intricate nature of the developing brain makes it difficult to determine a single cause, as Harvey Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine, explains, “When you’re dealing with a problem as complex as autism, you have to look at it from many different points of view and assemble evidence from many different vantage points. Biological evidence in humans and in animals, toxicologic evidence…and evidence looking at the actual experience in populations.”

While the CHARGE Study data points to a clear correlation between prenatal exposure to pesticides and an increased prevalence of ASD/DD, there’s no clear indicator that the pesticide exposure is the root cause of ASD/DD.

What should I do?

Because there is evidence to support that the chemical compounds in pesticides disrupt the development of the fragile neurotransmitters in utero, avoiding exposure to these chemicals should be a priority. So, while you’re pregnant, try to:

  • Avoid rural areas where you know agricultural chemicals are used – even on days when “active spraying” isn’t going on, the residue from these compounds can linger for a significant time.
  • Ensure all fresh produce brought into your home is thoroughly cleaned to remove pesticide residues is an obvious recommendation; buying organic produce is a great way to simplify that process, but you’ll still want to ensure its washed thoroughly.
  • Consider other sources of potential agri-chemical exposure, such as school sports or playing fields, and avoid these areas when possible.

The study also highlighted the importance of solid maternal nutrition, including prenatal vitamins.


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