Scientists at the University of California (UC), Davis and UC Los Angeles published findings that further strengthen the link between pesticide exposure and autism. According to the researchers, this is the third major study identifying a specific connection between autism and pesticide exposure. Additional studies have concluded that pesticides are also implicated in developmental delay in children.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives assessed whether pregnant women living close to areas using agricultural pesticides gave birth to children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or developmental delay (DD). California maps the use of agricultural pesticides extensively, allowing the scientists from UC Davis and UC Los Angeles to track 970 pregnant women and their pesticide exposures across the state. Commercial pesticide application data from the California Pesticide Use Report (1997-2008) were linked to the addresses of the women during pregnancy. The researchers totalled the amounts of active ingredient applied for various pesticide compounds (organophophates, organochlorines, pyrethroids, and carbamates) within 0.77 mile (1.25 kilometer), 0.93 mile (1.5 kilometer), and 1.1 miles (1.75 kilometers) from the home.
The children of the women studied included 486 with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), 168 with a developmental delay (DD) and 316 with typical development. Approximately one-third of the mothers studied lived just under one mile (1.5 kilometers) of an agricultural pesticide application during pregnancy. The scientists found that living close to organophosphate pesticides at some point during pregnancy was associated with a 60% increased risk for ASD. Organophosphates are a group of chemicals commonly used in insecticides, herbicides and nerve gases – they were discovered in the 19th century but their notorious history includes use as chemical weapons against humans in the Second World War.
Additionally, children of mothers living near pyrethroid insecticide applications just prior to conception or during the third trimester were at greater risk for both ASD and DD. This chemical is a synthetic version of a naturally occurring chemical in chrysanthemum; however it has been modified to be more stable, more potent and is not used as nature (and the chrysanthemum) intended it. The scientists also found the risk for DD was increased in children whose mothers lived near carbamate applications as well at any point during pregnancy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), carbamates are a group of chemicals that affect the nervous system by disrupting an enzyme that regulates acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter.
The authors of the study believe this examination of ASD strengthens the evidence linking neurodevelopmental disorders (including developmental delay) with pesticide exposures during pregnancy. They are the first to admit more work is required before concluding pesticides cause autism and other disorders. Regardless, the evidence continues to mount on the dangers of these chemicals on both agricultural land and in the yards of family homes. When it comes to banning pesticides, we can pick our cause, from earthworms to bees to the water supply. Now we can add unborn babies to the risk list.
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