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Study Links Pesticide Exposure to Increased Risk of Autism

Jun 27, 2014

A study published this week in Environmental Health Perspectives has linked pesticide exposure to an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The findings help confirm what scientists have long hypothesized, that the chances of autism are in some way affected by chemicals in the environment.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis looked at three types of pesticides for the study: organophosphates, pyrtheroids and carbamates; organophosphates include chlorpyrifos, a widely used insecticide. The study was conducted by analyzing the medical records of 970 individuals. Pregnant women who lived within a mile radius of an area treated with three different types of pesticides were two-thirds more likely to give birth to a child with ASD or developmental delays. Pesticide-treated locations included parks, golf courses, pastures and roadsides. The researchers found that the risk was even higher if pregnant women were exposed to the pesticides in the second or third trimester.  

Janie Shelton, a graduate student at UC Davis and one of the authors of the study, told CNN that pregnant women should try to avoid or reduce their exposure to pesticides until further studies reveal whether or not pesticides in the home are just as dangerous. “I would suggest that women who are pregnant or in the process of becoming pregnant avoid using chemicals inside the home," Shelton told CNN. "Make sure to read the labels and see if any of these chemicals are in the things they use."

The study adds to a growing body of research suggesting that pesticide exposure increases the risk of autism. “This is the third epidemiological study from California that has shown that prenatal pesticide exposure is associated with ASD,” said senior director of environmental and clinical sciences for Autism Speaks Alycia Halladay. “It reinforces the advice of public health care experts and doctors to minimize exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy.”

More studies are needed to determine if a mother’s genes also play a role, the authors said.

Pediatrics also published another study this week linking ASD to race. The researchers of that study found a higher risk of autism in children of foreign-born black, Central and South American, Filipino and Vietnamese mothers compared to white mothers born in the US. These findings do not mean that the races themselves are more susceptible to autism, and experts believe that autism is influenced by a number of different risk factors.

William Sharp, director of the Marcus Autism Center and assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine, told CNN “Both studies highlight the need to further enhance our understanding regarding the relationship between environmental events, fetal and early childhood development and autism,”  Sharp was not involved in either study, CNN said.

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