A new study coming out of Drexel University shows that children exposed to high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls while in the womb may be more at risk of developing autism.
Up to 50 to 80% more at risk.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are man-made chemicals that long ago fell out of favour in the late 1970s because of the growing concerns about their health effects. Back then they were used in the manufacture of a wide range of products like fluorescent light bulbs, insulators and electrical appliances.
Unfortunately, these PCBs are hard to break down and still linger in our environment, long after their production was banned. Scientists say that they can even be absorbed in significant amounts through the fats of animals that people eat.
The study involved observing 1,144 Southern California kids born between the years 2000 and 2003, whose mothers had submitted blood samples during their pregnancies as part of a pre-natal screening program.
What was discovered was that kids with the highest levels of prenatal exposure to PCBs had their risk of developing autism increase by 50 to 80%, depending on the chemical compound, as opposed to kids who had little or no exposure during gestation.
Along the same vein, exposure to these banned chemicals also led to almost twice the risk of developing intellectual disabilities which were unrelated to autism.
“The results suggest that prenatal exposure to these chemicals above a certain level may influence neurodevelopment in adverse ways,” according to Kristen Lyall, an assistant professor at Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute who led the study.
So, does this prove that PCBs are directly responsible for autism?
Autism is a multi-layered beast-a complex condition. There are so many things that count as causes for autism, and these, in turn, vary from person to person.
The experts are unanimous on that for children to develop autism they have to be genetically susceptible and be exposed to certain environmental factors during critical moments of early neurodevelopment.
What is less clear is what these environmental factors are. Likely culprits include certain infections, heavy air pollution, pesticides, and poor prenatal nutrition.
With the findings of the new study, PCBs could be joining the list.
Of the 1,144 kids looked at, 545 fell within the autism spectrum, while another 181 had an intellectual disability not related to autism. The remaining 418 had neither condition.
The Drexel team tried to make other connections, trying to factor in the mother’s age, weight and even race, but PCB levels were still linked to increased risks in autism.
“We are definitely doing more research to build on this-including work examining genetics, as well as mixtures of chemicals,” said Kristen Lyall.
The study failed to pick out any particular PCB compound for particular blame, because chemicals are never absorbed in isolation, and this raises more concern due to the universally present nature of these compounds all over the food chain and the ecosystem, especially in fatty foods.
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