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Could Chemicals and Toxic Exposure to Fetuses Lead to Autism?

By Molly Thornberg |

Could there be a chemical-autism link due to the presence of toxic chemicals fetuses are exposed to?

Could there be a chemical-autism link due to the presence of toxic chemicals fetuses are exposed to?


Autism is a group of developmental disorders that lead to impaired behaviors, communication and socialization. Approximately 1 in 110 children in the United States has autism.The cost of care for a person with autism throughout his or her life is approximately $3.2 million. Most medications do not help much and behavioral therapy can be hard to come by.

Could there be a chemical-autism link due to the presence of toxic chemicals fetuses are exposed to?

While some suggest vaccines to be the cause of autism, environmental health and autism experts called today for a greater scrutiny of chemicals found in the environment which could potentially lead to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Irva Hertz-Piccotto, Chief of the Division of Environmental Health at the University of California, Davis, and a faculty member at the Mind Institute said today that autism spectrum disorders are being diagnosed at unprecedented rates, partly because of improved diagnostic tools and criteria – but also due to a host of other factors. Those factors include what a pregnant women are exposed to which in turn their unborn babies are as well.

“We live, breathe and start our families in the presence of toxic chemical mixtures and constant low-level toxic exposures, in stark contrast to the way chemicals are tested for safety,” said Donna Ferullo, Director of Program Research at The Autism Society.

“Lead, mercury, and other neurotoxic chemicals have a profound effect on the developing brain at levels that were once thought to be safe,” she said.

What are these chemicals and environmental concerns for fetuses?

The central nervous system of the fetus is sensitive to a wide range of chemicals, Hertz-Piccotto said.  Hormones, such as estrogens and androgens, are essential for proper brain development. Endocrine-disrupting compounds need more research, she said. Flame-retardant chemicals called PBDEs interfere with the body’s hormones.  Even though many of them are no longer used in manufacturing, they can hang around in the environment and the human body for a long time.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is aware of concerns about these chemicals and is working on accessing substitutions (see the action plan).

Bisphenol A, present in plastic food packaging and water bottles, among other products, is another big concern, she said, because it could interfere with the body’s natural estrogen system; antimicrobials added to soaps, toothpaste and other products can artificially enhance androgenic activity.

“That means that they could potentially play a role in autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders,” Hertz-Piccotto said.

Moreover, many children with autism spectrum disorders have abnormal immune responses. The chemical messengers in the immune system interact with the receptors in the brain, so chemicals that affect immunity could also be implicated in autism.

Read more about the possible chemical-autism link on


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About Molly Thornberg


Molly Thornberg

Molly Thornberg is a wife and mother of four. She worked in web design and social media marketing before quitting to pursue blogging full time. On Digital Mom Blog, Molly shares "geeky" DIY projects, discusses the latest technology news, and talks about her life as a parent. Read bio and latest posts → Read Molly's latest posts →

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4 thoughts on “Could Chemicals and Toxic Exposure to Fetuses Lead to Autism?

  1. Katy E says:

    The update on the CNN article states ,”the scientific evidence available has shown again and again that vaccines do not cause autism”

    Maybe we should stop bringing up the dead horse of vaccines and autism. It only stirs up less-than-well educated opinions.

  2. Diera says:

    I’ve thought for YEARS that it was ridiculous that the focus remained on vaccines, which have been looked at again and again and again with no replicable results (and no drop in autism with the removal of thimerosal), while the soup of other man-made chemicals that we come into contact with daily has gotten so little attention. That’s my main problem with the continued focus on the vaccine hypothesis; that it’s sucking money away from other kinds of autism research.

  3. LK says:

    I have long suspected that environmental toxins were playing a part in the rising autism rates. I think it’s really unfortunate that so much attention has been diverted to vaccines when there are thousands of toxic chemicals in our everyday products and persisting in the environment that are largely untested and unregulated. Time to shift the focus here, folks.

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