Our Consumption of Chemicals and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Is There a Connection?

Autism is a term that sends chills up the spines of new parents. Autism isn’t just one disorder, it is a spectrum of different disorders that affect the communication skills and behavior of those children diagnosed with it.

Autism is non-discretionary in who it affects affecting children in all ethnic, racial and economic groups.

Research has been ongoing for decades to understand what is causing children who seem average when born to within the first two years of their lives develop the symptoms of autism. This article centers around new research that may have opened a door into understanding what is happening to our children and what can be done about it.

Changes to the Diagnostic Criteria for Autism in the DSM-5

Before we delve into the new science, let’s examine what we know about autism spectrum disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5), is the definitive guide for diagnosing mental health disorders and is published by the American Psychiatric Association. Within this publication lies the diagnostic criteria for autistic spectrum disorder.

Until the DSM-5, published on May 18, 2013, autism was subjected to categories such as Asperger’s Syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder.

According to an article published on the Autism Research Institute website, the changes in the DSM-5 to the diagnostic criteria were based on research, analysis, and expert opinions from specialists and were made with the hope that the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders is more specific, reliable and valid.

Those changes in the DSM-5 related to diagnosing Autism were not made without concerns. Parents and people living with high-functioning autism feared that some children and adults diagnosed under the old criteria would find it difficult to accessing and getting the diagnostic services they needed.

Indeed, as of March 2018, there is still a great deal of concern over how different insurance companies will interpret the new diagnostic term autism spectrum disorder and how they will pay.

Now, new research may put a new spin on the diagnostic term autism spectrum disorder in how it is diagnosed and treated.

Exposure to Heavy Metals In Utero and Autism Spectrum Disorder

The information I am about to share with you is frightening and may explain why more children are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder than ever before.

I will begin with a paper published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, in April 2016.

They had commissioned five laboratories in the United States, Canada, and Europe to analyze umbilical cord blood collected from ten minority infants born in 2007 and 2008.

The findings of this research were sobering. The laboratories were able to identify nearly 232 industrial compounds and pollutants, with a complex mixture in each infant. Among these substances were found mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and BPA (a byproduct of the chemicals used in the making of plastic.)

These findings mean that industrial chemicals are being passed through the placenta to unborn children.

A paper published in the journal Biological Trace Element Research in January 2018, supported the findings of the EWG, stating the following:

“The results of this study are consistent with numerous previous studies, supporting an important role for heavy metal exposure, particularly mercury, in the etiology of ASD. It is desirable to continue future research into the relationship between ASD and heavy metal exposure.”

Examining Each Heavy Metal and How They Enter the Human Body

If you have been shocked by the findings of the relationship between ASD and heavy metals, you are not alone. However, the only way to defeat a problem is to recognize its existence, then work out ways to eliminate it.

Granted, the heavy metals mercury, arsenic and cadmium occur naturally in the earth’s environment. However, we have dug up these metals, refined them and use them in a myriad of ways that are harming our children before they have taken their first breath.

So, in the light that we need to face the difficult task of ending the tragedy that our own industrial might has caused, we must first understand each metal and substance so that we can avoid them.

I am going to use an informational page from the Environmental Working Group’s website to give further information on each substance.

Keep in mind that while research is ongoing, the exact mechanisms by which each of the following substances harms our unborn is not fully understood.


Lead is a substance that is highly toxic to the brain and is strongly linked to permanent damage to it and the entire nervous system. It is known to have a damaging effect on children in their behavior, learning, and cause reproductive and nerve disorders.

A report published by the Environmental Working Group in 2009 gives the following statement about lead, “Advances in cognitive and behavioral testing have allowed researchers to discern harm at lower and lower exposures. There is no known safe threshold for exposure.”

Usually lead enters the bloodstream of pregnant women and thus their unborn infant via contaminated drinking water or from accidentally consuming chipped lead paint that has fallen into food in older homes.

Although the contamination from lead in Flint Michigan is the exception, most lead is significantly reduced by using a water filter. The old lead paint in the home should be either removed (the safest option) or painted over to reduce the chances of either the pregnant woman or her baby being poisoned by it.


Mercury is a known neurotoxin that impedes the development of a healthy brain and nervous system. This chemical, while also naturally occurring, is poisoning people through coal-fired power plants that have contaminated our oceans and fresh water.

Other causes of contamination include fluorescent light bulbs and the old mercury-filled thermometers. Once these devices break, they release the most toxic form of mercury, methylmercury, into the food chain. The most notable food affected is seafood.

Once a pregnant woman has eaten or drank mercury, the development of the developing fetus’ brain and central nervous system will be affected causing brain damage and possibly ASD.

Unfortunately, the U.S. federal government in 2014 published new dietary advice for pregnant women which encouraged the eating of seafood for its beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. They did not explain thoroughly enough the risks of mercury that is found in many of the popular species of fish these women consumed.

The EWG gives this warning to pregnant women:

“To protect your baby from toxic mercury and ensure his or her healthy development, you should not only watch how much fish you eat but what kind of fish,”


 A report from the Toxic Substance Portal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), states that children who ingest contaminated food, juice or infant formula made with arsenic-contaminated water can experience lower I.Q. scores. This means the arsenic has interrupted the healthy development of these children’s brains.

Another way children become poisoned with arsenic is via their mothers ingesting contaminated seafood, rice/rice cereal, mushrooms or poultry while they are in the womb.

Although exposure is less to children than from contaminated food or water, kids can also be poisoned by lead by playing in play structures made from Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) treated wood, AKA pressure treated wood.


A paper published in the journal Occupational Environmental Medicine in 2010, offered the following findings:

“Placental transport of cadmium is limited. However, prenatal cadmium exposure may have a detrimental effect on head circumference at birth and child growth in the first 3 years of life.”

As many of my readers already know, ASD usually is noticed and thus diagnosed in the first two years of life. While this may be a coincidence, it is worth noting here.

Cadmium is used in the following products:

  • Batteries
  • Pigments
  • Coatings
  • Stabilizers for Plastic

For nonsmokers living in the United States, the primary source of exposure to cadmium is from eating contaminated foods, such as leafy vegetables, potatoes, peanuts, soybeans, and sunflower seeds.

Cadmium gets into our food via metal mining and refining, the manufacture and application of phosphate fertilizers, and waste incineration of cadmium-containing products like batteries.

Societies Love Affair with Plastic

 While the jury is still out on the following information, I felt it too important to ignore.

The use of plastics has become commonplace. We use it to make bottles, bags, toys, and about any other universally used device in the world. However, there is growing evidence supporting the theory that societies love affair with plastic is harming our unborn children.

To understand the connection between our love of plastic and ASD, we must first examine the most recent advent of plastic to our society.

In the 1970s, plastic has increasingly become commonplace in our lives. During that decade, high-tech forms of plastic have been developed fueled by consumer needs. They offer us benefits that surpass any other substance man has ever created being pliable and reusable.

In 1980, autism made it into the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and a few short years later researchers began tracking it.

It was in the early 2000s that when an uptick in the prevalence of autism was first noticed. By then we had been using plastic to cover and hold our food for thirty years, but the advent of the microwave oven in the late 1980s had made plastic containers and dishes become a booming business.

By the mid-2000s, researchers were beginning to grow alarmed by what they saw as a growing danger to unborn babies from plastic.

New Research On the Use of Plastic and Unborn Fetus’

Indeed, in research reported in the journal Environmental Sciences and Technology in 2013, found that “universal fetal exposure to BPA in our study population, with some at relatively high levels, and we provide the first evidence of detectable BPA sulfate in mid-gestation fetuses.”

Several studies have been conducted in the past decade to ascertain the way that plastic may be a contributing factor in the formation of ASD, and why boys seem to be disproportionately affected. One possible antagonist is BPA.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical substance used industrially to make plastic hard and clear. It is used in many products you and I use such as bottles, and even the protective lining inside milk cartons.

However, BPA is an endocrine disrupter, meaning they imitate the actions of chemical messengers in our bodies. Even in small amounts, BPA is damaging to our bodies because they aren’t recognized as something foreign and thus can harm a developing fetus’ brain.

The chemical messenger that is most affected by BPA is glucocorticoid (GR), a gene that controls the development of the fetal brain.

Why Boys More Than Girls?

Research conducted and reported by the American Chemical Society in June 2018, found that BPA has a sex preference in how it is expressed harming the development of the brain of a developing fetus.

They stated in their paper:

“Gonadal (male) hormones are known to influence the sexual differentiation of the brain. Therefore, exposure to endocrine disrupters which affect gonadal hormone levels may contribute to sex-specific behavioral changes.

Galloway et al. found that urinary BPA was correlated with serum concentrations of total testosterone.

Thus, alterations in gonadal hormone levels provoked by BPA exposure may perturb sex-dependent neurobehaviors.

Interestingly, a recent report showed that prenatal BPA treatment results in a sex-specific disruption of epigenetic pathways in the brain.”

In short, the brains of male children while still inside the womb are being harmed in their development. Could this be the smoking gun of ASD?

Further research must be done to give us a definitive answer.

In Closing

 Clearly, there are many questions about autism spectrum disorder that remain unanswered. However, could it be that our modern lifestyle is what is harming our children? Can the answer be to eliminate or limit as much as is humanly possible our unborn children’s exposure to the chemicals written about in this article?

Only time and more research will tell.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of PatientNextDoor. Any omissions or errors are the author’s and PatientNextDoor does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.












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