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Increase in autism rates raises questions about chemical, environmental links
Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012

One in 88 children in the United States has an autism disorder, a significant increase from previous government estimates, the Obama administration said today in a highly anticipated report.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate is a 23 percent increase from the 1 in 110 calculation the agency released in 2009. It is leading many in the public health community to point to environmental factors -- including chemicals and air pollution -- as possible causes of the increase.

"This information paints a picture of the magnitude of the condition across our country and helps us understand how communities identify children with autism," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Researchers at CDC studied 2008 statistics on 8-year-olds from 14 communities across the country. They found that autism disorders are five times more common in boys than girls, with 1 in 54 boys being identified. The report also found the largest increases among black and Hispanic children.

Autism rates ranged from 1 in 210 children in Alabama being affected by the disorders, to 1 in 47 children in Utah.

The exact cause of autism disorders remains unknown. However, the study comes as some new research is pointing to environmental factors as a contributor to autism, said Eric Uram, executive director of the nonprofit Safe Minds, which studies neurological disorders.

Uram pointed to research from Stanford University last year that looked at autism in twins. The study concluded that environmental factors may be the cause of nearly 60 percent of autism cases. Recent studies from the University of Southern California and other universities have suggested exposure to air pollution may play a role in neurological disorders (Greenwire <http://www.eenews.net/Greenwire/2011/11/08/archive/22> , Nov. 8, 2011).

"What needs to happen is there needs to be a greater focus on what the causes are and identifying how we can prevent those exposures," Uram said.

CDC highlighted steps the Obama administration is taking to continue its autism research. In particular, it noted that the National Institutes of Health continues to look into the causes of the disorders, including environmental factors. In fiscal 2012, NIH invested $169 million in autism research, the agency said.

"To understand more, we need to keep accelerating our research into risk factors and causes of autism spectrum disorders," said Coleen Boyle, director of CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

Other public health groups said the research shows the need for stronger chemical regulations, including reforming the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) -- which grants U.S. EPA the authority to regulate chemicals.

"These stunning new figures are a call to action among our elected leaders to minimize our children's exposures to mercury and other toxic chemicals," said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook. "Nothing less than an all-hands-on-deck approach to this mounting epidemic is required by Congress, the president and industry."

Uram and David Levine of the American Sustainable Business Council emphasized the potential costs of rising autism rates, particularly when children with autism grow up.

"We're just extremely concerned," said Levine. "From autism to other diseases, this will have major impacts on society and our ability to invest in our economy and workforce."

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical makers, said it supports the government's efforts to better understand autism and that chemical makers "take seriously their responsibility to protect children's health."

"The reported rise in autism rates should be studied to better understand the increasing prevalence of the disorder," the council said in a statement. "As the CDC has noted, the rise is likely attributed to a combination of factors, including the broader definition of autism spectrum disorders, greater awareness, and better diagnosis."

ACC added that it is working closely with U.S. EPA, NIH, CDC and the National Children's Study to examine all factors that have the potential to affect children's health.

Andy Igrejas of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition added that the findings underscore the need for action on Sen. Frank Lautenberg's (D-N.J.) "Safe Chemicals Act" (S. 847 <http://www.eenews.net/bills/112/Senate/090611150815.pdf> ), which would overhaul TSCA and require chemical manufacturers to prove their substances are safe before they go on the market.

Lautenberg's bill lacks the support of many industry groups and Republicans, but the Democrat says he plans to mark up the bill this year.

"As evidence accumulates that unregulated chemicals contribute substantially to autism, chemical policy reform becomes even more of a moral imperative," Igrejas said in a statement. "This spring the U.S. Senate can help alleviate the problem by passing the Safe Chemicals Act, which would, for the first time, create an orderly process for identifying the chemicals that contribute to conditions like autism and apply appropriate restrictions."

Posted on 3/29/2012 (Archive on 4/19/2012)

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