This is what we know so far:
A 2011 Stanford University study with 192 pairs of twins, with one twin autistic and one not, found that genetics accounts for 38 percent of the risk of autism, and environmental factors account for 62 percent. Supporting an environmental/genetic tag team are other studies showing autistic children and their mothers have a high rate of a genetic deficiency in the production of glutathione, an antioxidant and the body's primary means of detoxifying heavy metals. High levels of toxic metals in children are strongly correlated with the severity of autism.
Low levels of glutathione, coupled with high production of another chemical, homocysteine, increase the chance of a mother having an autistic child to one in three. That autism is four times more common among boys than girls is likely related to a defect in the single male X chromosome contributing to antioxidant deficiency. But there is no such thing as a genetic disease epidemic because genes don't change that quickly, so the alarming rise in autism must be the result of increased environmental exposures that exploit these genetic defects.
The list of autism's possible environmental triggers is long and comes from many studies that show higher rates of autism with greater exposure to flame retardants, plasticizers like BPA, pesticides, endocrine disruptors in personal-care products, heavy metals in air pollution, mercury, and pharmaceuticals like antidepressants.
During the first three months of gestation, a human embryo adds 250,000 brain cells per minute, reaching 200 billion by the fifth month. No chemical elixir can improve this biologic miracle, but thousands of toxic substances can cross the placenta and impair the process, leaving brain cells stressed, inflamed, less well developed, fewer in number and with fewer connections with each other. Autistic brain architecture can be revealed by MRI scan as early as six months of age.
Doctors have long advised women during pregnancy to avoid consumption of alcohol, drugs or chemicals. But as participants in modern society we are all now exposed to over 85,000 chemicals from the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the consumer products we use.
Pregnant women and their children have 100 times more chemical exposures today than 50 years ago. The average newborn has more than 200 different chemicals and heavy metals contaminating its blood when it takes its first breath; 158 of them are toxic to the brain. Little wonder that rates of autism, attention deficit and behavioral disorders are all on the rise.
Utah residents should demand answers and solutions. Just like a crime investigation, every possible environmental suspect should be on the table. The Great Salt Lake has the highest concentration of mercury of any water body in the U.S. We are constantly inhaling dust and emissions from Kennecott and the expanding dry beaches surrounding the Great Salt Lake, all of which contain mercury, lead or other heavy metals. Utah has the nation's highest rate of antidepressant use. Our air pollution is sometimes the worst in the nation, and the toxic brew from five oil refineries penetrates every home within miles.
Autism is a lifelong, individual and family tragedy. That Utah has become the nation's autism capital constitutes tragedy on a grand scale. There are times for government activism and intervention. This is certainly one of those times.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.