Autism's source: chemicals

Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I may be to blame for my daughter's autism. Last year, the Israeli army released a study in which men over 40 were found to be almost six times as likely to father autistic children as men in their 20s.

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Or maybe it was my wife. Another study, released in July of this year, suggests that women who live near agricultural areas where pesticides are used produce offspring with a higher incidence of autism.

Perhaps the pharmaceutical industry is to blame. Some people claim their children became autistic after getting immunizations in which mercury was present in trace amounts, pointing to a 1998 case study that was later retracted, but whose premise remains popular.

There are many published studies claiming to have found autism links. Personally, I believe most of these studies have merit, but they all miss the point.

The Autism Society of America claims that one in every 166 children born today is autistic. They also claim this number has been increasing, although some of the increase is probably because of an increased awareness of autism spectrum disorders in our society.

I accept the premise that autism rates are on the rise, but I have my own theory as to why: We live in a world dependent upon chemicals.

We use pesticides to deter insects and other pests from eating our crops so that we may have enough food to eat. We feed hormones to livestock to speed their growth rate or increase their milk production. We add preservatives to processed foods to prolong their shelf life. We vaccinate our population to control the spread of disease, and use medicines to limit the impact of diseases we do contract.

Without these chemicals most of us would die from disease or starvation, if we were lucky enough to be born at all.

Chemicals drive our industries and create products we buy and use every day. These industries and many of their products add chemical pollutants to our air and water. People also use chemicals of all sorts, often improperly and to excess, causing more pollution in our environment.

New chemicals come into use daily. Occasionally, chemicals are banned from use because their harmful effects become readily apparent. Unfortunately, the harmful effects of many chemicals are not readily apparent, and interactions between chemicals often cause unintended consequences.

Mankind has always been exposed to chemicals, but the complexity and concentrations of chemicals to which we are exposed surged during the past century, especially within the last fifty years.

This is the same time in which autism rates have been rising.

All my life, I have been exposed to chemicals. The same thing is true of my wife. The same thing is true of every last one of us. Every year we add to our lives, we add more chemicals into our bodies.

Is it so much of a stretch to imagine that a lifetime of exposure to many chemicals increases the risk to our unborn children? Is it hard to believe that young children in a chemistry-dependent society are at a greater risk from these chemicals?

This is my autism theory. I have no proof other than the circumstantial evidence provided here, but I have seen many other theories presented with less evidence and accepted as fact.

If this theory is correct, what are the prospects for my children, for all our children? What of their children? Is there anything we could do to reduce the risks to them?

We could choose to buy organically grown foods, or at least wash the fresh produce we buy. We could avoid meat from animals tainted by added hormones, or fed with pesticide-treated feeds (most store-bought meats). We could cut out processed foods laden with preservatives. We could filter the water we drink.

We could also encourage our children, and all people who want to have children, toward an active lifestyle. Exercise increases the body's metabolism and flushes toxins from flesh and bone.

Lifestyle changes like these may or may not reduce the risk of autism, and some of these changes would be difficult for many people. But then again, wouldn't taking better care of ourselves be better than playing the blame game?

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and longterm Juneau resident.

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