Environmental toxins and the new paradigm of children’s autism
When Dr Leila Masson was training in paediatric specialty in San Francisco about 20 years ago, it was rare for her and her colleagues to see a child with autism. But diagnoses of autism in children are on the rise. In 1985 it was estimated one in 2500 children in the US were on the autism spectrum, but by this year that estimate had risen to one in 68, with boys outnumbering girls four to one.
According to Leila, the consensus is it’s a genuine increase in autism rates, not just a rise in better and earlier diagnoses.
The traditional view of autism is that it’s caused by genetics and is a brain disease that can’t be treated, she says. But there’s a new paradigm that says there’s no such thing as a genetic epidemic, that it’s a multi-system disorder rather than being all about the brain, and that environmental toxins can prompt autism in kids who are genetically pre-disposed, Leila adds.
A number of studies have put the link between environmental factors and autism under and microscope. And although no studies have proved environmental toxins cause autism, they have correlated autism with exposure to toxins, Leila says.
She cites a 2011 US study of twins with autism who share environmental factors as well as genes, which found genetics accounted for 38 percent of autism causes, while environmental factors such as toxins caused 58 percent.
A 2007 study in the US tested whether air pollution effects closely before and after birth are associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and found exposure to air pollution may increase the risk. And the researchers behind the comprehensive CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks From Genetics and the Environment) study which began in 2003 say they were the first to identify an interaction between genes and environment.
One of these pollutants is organophosphate pesticides, which Leila says can harm the brain, especially in utero. As she points out, this nine months or so is a time when the brain grows from a few cells to the most complex organ known, so there’s big potential for disruption. And in their first three years of life children absorb more toxins through their skin than adults, and have more immature excretion systems.
She adds pesticides can disrupt neurotransmitters like acetylcholine – which aids brain development and memory – and disrupt DNA replication.
Leila also pointed out a 2008 Texus study that revealed a statistically significant association between autism risk and distance from sources of mercury. For each 1000 pounds of environmentally released mercury, there was a 61 percent increase in the rate of autism, she says.
And last month a study found children exposed to highest amounts of styrene and chromium during pregnancy and their first years of life had a 1.4 to twofold risk of autism.
Leila colourfully illustrates the need to improve the quality of our environment when it comes to toxins and autism - people have likened children with autism to the canary in the coalmine that, when it stopped singing, alerted miners they should leave the mine because oxygen levels were too low. In metaphorical equivalent, children with autism were most likely to get sick because of their susceptibility to toxins in the environment, serving as a warning to others that their environment needed to be improved.
Treating the symptoms of autism
New potential symptom treatments have sprung up alongside a new view of autism. They include N acetyl cystine (NAC) a precursor to the antioxidant glutathione. Leila says this helps the body detoxify and has been shown in studies to help lower irritability.
And a recent report by a US School of Medicine outlined how sulforaphane, which is found in broccoli sprouts, helped combat behavioural autism symptoms in some of those involved in a trial.
Gut health also plays a big part when children have autism, Leila says, adding we’ve known for a long time about the connection between gut health and brain health. In autism, common gut issues include inflammation, reflux, colitis, abnormal gut flora, constipation and diorrhoea, she says.
Children with ASD can exhibit behavior that reflects symptoms of gastrointestinal problems, she says. These include crying, tantrums, waking at night, putting pressure on their gut or hitting it, lying over couches or their parents’ lap, or even self injuring.
Last year the New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline specified that children with autism had to be assessed and treated for gastrointestinal problems.
What might the future hold?
Leila sees probiotics, antibiotics and fecal transplants as possible treatments for children’s autism symptoms – and believes communities need to demand stricter environmental protection mechanisms to reduce exposure to toxins.
In Australia, some centres are treating children with autism with antibiotics and achieving great results, Leila says. At the Centre for Digestive Diseases in Sydney, medical director and professor Thomas Borody is working on fecal transplants for children. These are freeze dried to make treatments similar to probiotics.
Gut health will come into increasingly sharp focus, Leila says, adding the biomedical approach she takes incorporates testing of gut flora to see which bacteria are growing and which are lacking, then addressing these imbalances with probiotics.
And her belief in the need for stricter environmental protection is grounded in the precautionary principle that’s also followed by ecostore. That principle says toxins and potentially harmful chemicals shouldn’t be used unless they’re proven to be safe, rather than putting the onus on the consumer to decide.
Dr Leila Masson is a paediatrician and public health specialist interested in disease prevention through healthy nutrition and lifestyle. She provides biomedical treatment for children on the autism spectrum, and a holistic approach to behavior and learning challenges.
Keep an eye on our blog soon for Leila’s tips on avoiding toxins in the bathroom.