Could Chemicals and Toxic Exposure to Fetuses Lead to Autism?

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.

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