E Magazine’s cover story this month, “The Search for Autism’s Missing Piece: Autism Research Slowly Turns Its Focus to Environmental Toxicity” by Brita Belli (the editor of E), focuses on the environmental factors that might contribute to autism — and about how slowly the medical community has come around to acknowledging all the sources of toxicity that are affecting children today. The burgeoning rates of incidence — autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in America today, with more pediatric cases than cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined — beg for an explanation beyond genetics. The article lists possible environmental factors contributing to autism: mercury in vaccinations, dental amalgams, seafood and other sources, lead and sulfur dioxide in our air, arsenic and pharmaceuticals in our waters, and phthalates, Bisphenol-A or BPA, and flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs) found in the home and school environments.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group, in a detailed report about the neglect of autism research’s focus on environmental factors, points out that ‘Hundreds of studies have explored the genetic roots of the autism epidemic, but none has uncovered a single gene or vulnerability to account for more than a fraction of cases.’
But the research that is taking up the environmental challenge is uncovering surprising answers—particularly in relation to the link between heavy metal toxicity and autism. Some of this research focuses on porphyrins: chemicals that increase in the blood in response to heavy metal toxicity. Turns out that autistic kids have more porphyrins in their blood following chelation—a detoxing process done by administering a drug such as dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) used to treat lead poisoning—than do typical kids. The antioxidant glutathione—critical for the body to excrete metals—plays a role, too. Glutathione typically works by binding to heavy metals, which the body then knows to eliminate. In 2004, researcher Jill James, Ph.D., of the Arkansas School of Medicine, led a pioneering study that showed autistic kids had significantly less glutathione than typical kids—which put their bodies in a state of “constant oxidative stress.” In other words, autistic kids were genetically predisposed to have low glutathione levels, making them particularly susceptible to heavy metal toxicity. That toxicity—whether in the form of vaccines, fish, dental amalgams, air pollution, tainted water or other environmental toxins—might provide the “toxic tipping point” to render a child autistic…
…Adams’ findings point to more than just the fact that autistic kids seem less able to excrete mercury and heavy metals, although that’s part of the problem. He also found, looking at the medical history of autistic kids, that they were much more likely to have been given multiple rounds of oral antibiotics as infants, mostly due to increased ear infections. And that impacts mercury excretion, too. ‘Oral antibiotics in rats have been shown to greatly decrease the rate of excretion of mercury,’ says Adams. ‘So the half-life for excretion goes from 10 days to 100 days in rats on oral antibiotics.'”
It’s a great article for the layperson unfamiliar with the world of autism that summarizes where the two autism camps stand — on one side with conventional medicine, pharmaceuticals, and behavioral therapies and the other with holistic “biomedical” treatments like heavy metal chelation, diet, and lifestyle changes — but offers no real surprising or new information to those who have been fighting the daily battle of environmental illness in the trenches for years. Still, it’s a good idea for adults with similar toxicity issues as children with autism — high heavy metal levels, problems detoxing chemicals, a history of antibiotic use, gut dysbiosis, etc. — to stay tuned to the autism channel to see what new treatment plans are being used by parents of autistic children. There is a lot more money, research, and focus going toward children with autism than adults with environmental illness but the similarities in symptoms, exposure history, test results, and treatments between these two groups might provide some unexpected answers for adults with severe toxicity levels combined with weak or damaged detoxification systems, or at least a clearer direction.