Simply living within a mile of a farm where pesticides are used can increase a woman’s chances of giving birth to a child with autism.
That was one of the conclusions of a study establishing a link between pesticides and autism recently completed by researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis).
Pesticides cause autism by damaging the nervous system, the study’s lead author, environmental epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto, told CBS News. She believes babies in the womb are vulnerable because their body lacks a chemical filter that keeps toxins out of the brain.
“Many of these compounds work on neurons,” Hertz-Picciotto said of pesticides. “When they work on the insect, they’re dealing with the nervous system of the insect and basically incapacitating it.”
Many pesticides are designed to affect insects in the same way that nerve gas affects human beings by destroying the nervous system. Nerve gas was first invented as a pesticide in Germany before World War II.
Pesticides cause autism by preventing connections from forming between nerve cells, Hertz-Picciotto speculated. This keeps the brain from communicating properly, which can lead to autism spectrum disorders and other mental health problems.
She advised pregnant women to stay away from most pesticides and instead to use less toxic products such as diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is safe to use around children and pregnant women because it does not attack a pest’s nervous systems. Instead, it kills bugs by dehydrating them.
Golf Courses and Other Locations, Too
The study – titled Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Prenatal Residential Proximity to Agricultural Pesticides — outlines data sampling done by a team of researchers led by Hertz-Piccitto. The researchers compared the addresses of women with children with autism to locations in California where pesticides were used.
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Their findings published in the National Institute of Health’s scientific journal Environmental Perspectives concluded:
- Living within one mile or 1.5 kilometers of a farm, park, golf course or other facility with heavy pesticide use during the last three months of pregnancy increased a woman’s likelihood of having a child with an autism spectrum disorder or ASD by 60 percent.
- “Children of mothers who live near agricultural areas, or who are otherwise exposed to organophosphate, pyrethroid, or carbamate pesticides during gestation may be at increased risk for neurodevelopmental disorder.”
- Young children who live near areas where pesticides are used could also be at greater risk of developing autism spectrum disorders.
- Some kids might be more vulnerable to neurological damage from pesticides because of other factors such as inherited traits.
“These neurodevelopment disabilities are not the function of a single factor,” Hertz-Picciotto noted. “I would suspect that there’s a number of different factors at play that have to do with maternal health, maternal nutrition, as well as chemicals that are used around the home as well as other factors like air pollution. It’s going to be an accumulation of factors for any one woman.”
Philip J. Landrigan of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York told Reuters parents should “minimize or eliminate use of pesticides in their own homes.”
Pregnant women and families with young children should not use any pesticide that affects the nervous system, the study determined. They should also stay away from areas where pesticides are used.
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