Top 10 Chemicals Most Likely to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities

Autistic Boy

A number of months ago, the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC) released a list of the top ten toxic chemicals suspected to cause autism and learning disabilities.

This list can’t come soon enough, as earlier this year  the CDC reported that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) now affects 1 of every 88 American children – a 23% increase from 2006 and a 78% increase from 2002.

And while there is controversy over how those numbers are reached, it still is worth repeating.  There has been a 78% increase in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the last ten years.  At the same time, the CDC also reported that ADHD now affects 14% of American children.

As these disorders continue to affect more children across the U.S., researchers are asking what is causing these dramatic increases.  Some of the explanation is greater awareness and more accurate diagnosis. But clearly, there is more to the story than simply genetics, as the increases are far too rapid to be of purely genetic origin.

According to the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC) release this morning and data from the research article, “Environmental Pollutants and Disease in American Children (July 2002)“, the National Academy of Sciences reports that 3% of all neurobehavioral disorders in children are caused directly by toxic exposure in the environment and another 25% disorders are caused by interactions between environmental factors and genetics. But the precise environmental causes are not yet known”. (Note: the first version of this article included a link to the National Academy of Sciences study from 2000 and has been updated to include a link to the July 2002 study).

So while industry can claim that there is little evidence that these chemicals in isolation or in combination (which doctors now refer to as “synergistic toxicity”) cause autism, the truth is that there is still very little evidence or the toxicological safety studies.  In other words, there is a gap in the science.

There is a huge gap.  According to CNN, the EPA has tested only about 200 of the 80,000 chemicals in use.

But thankfully, that is changing with the work of the team at Mt. Sinai and the extraordinary leadership, courage and intellect of Dr. Phil Landrigan and the urgent call by experts to reform chemical laws.

To guide a research strategy to discover potentially preventable environmental causes and to arm parents and those hoping to be parents with knowledge, the Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC) has developed a list of ten chemicals found in consumer products that are suspected to contribute to autism and learning disabilities.

This list was published in Environmental Health Perspectives in an editorial written by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, director of the CEHC, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and Dr. Luca Lambertini, also of the CEHC.

The top ten chemicals are:

  1. Lead
  2. Methylmercury
  3. PCBs
  4. Organophosphate pesticides
  5. Organochlorine pesticides
  6. Endocrine disruptors
  7. Automotive exhaust
  8. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  9. Brominated flame retardants
  10. Perfluorinated compounds

As the Children’s Environmental Health Center shares, the editorial was published alongside four other papers — each suggesting a link between toxic chemicals and autism.  Both the editorial and the papers originated at a conference hosted by CEHC in December 2010.

The first paper, written by a team at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, found preliminary evidence linking smoking during pregnancy to Asperger’s disorder and other forms of high-functioning autism.  The next two papers, (one and two) written by researchers at the University of California – Davis, show that PCBs disrupt early brain development. The final paper, also by a team at UC – Davis, suggests further exploring the link between pesticide exposure and autism.

Ultimately, all five papers call for increased research to identify the possible environmental causes of autism in America’s children.

This importance of this call to action can not be emphasized enough, because while our children may only represent 30% of our population, they are 100% of our future and we need to protect them like our country depends on it.  Because it does.

So what can you do to protect the health of your children?  Thankfully, a lot.  And while none of us can do everything, all of us can do something, so choose one, some or all from the list below:

  • Eat organic food whenever possible to reduce exposure to synthetic pesticides which by law are not allowed for use in its production
  • Open your windows to clear the air in your home from the toxins that can accumulate there
  • Take your shoes off as you come inside to keep pesticides on the soles of your shoes from entering your home
  • Look for cans and plastic bottles that are “BPA-free”
  • Poohette

    This article is missing something. It needs a more detailed list of what foods/food products as well as beauty products & house hold cleaners that these chemicals can be found in. Most people don’t know that chemicals are in almost everything we put on or in our bodies as well as in our environments.

  • Gina

    Surely, there are more things one can do to limit exposure to chemicals in our food and environment. What a disappointment that the author only gave 4 recommendations! It seems like she just wanted to finish her assignment before really finishing it. Here are some other ideas:

    1. Save your money to buy an organic mattress that has not been sprayed with flame retardant. Some of these mattresses also use little to no formaldehyde. It has been proven that lactating mothers have these chemicals in their breast milk!

    2. Some women slather on body lotion everyday that is FULL of chemicals. Our skin is an organ and absorbs what we put on it. Makeup, shampoo, conditioners are toxic as well. Check out your natural foods market and you’ll discover many cleaner choices, that are just as effective.

    3. We don’t need harsh household cleaners or chemical laden laundry detergent! Think about it: companies cannot make money selling a bottle of water, lemon juice, baking soda and vinegar! In most cases these tried and true ingredients work great. So, we are made to believe that we need carcinogens to dust with, and to make our laundry smell “good”. Ridiculous.

    True, natural and/or organic products are usually more expensive, but please do not put a price tag on your health and your unborn child’s health. You can find ways to cut back on lots of things to afford what you need. Cut back on speciality coffee runs, acrylic nails, $300 handbags etc, which are not healthy anyway.

    Go organic and be well!

  • Anonymous

    Dr Philip Landrigan is being politically correct by not just putting down MERCURY rather than the methylmercury put at No2.

    The ancients had mercury listed as a substance that takes away the mind.

    Possibly we forget this simple fact as several tons are used to inject into babies every few years.


    Any chemist will know mercury is far more toxic than lead!

  • Anonymous

    You might find the resources at helpful. They test and rate all kinds of consumer products, including house hold cleaners.

  • Thanks so much for this summary, Dr. Lipman and Robyn O’Brien. I’ve been pulling together the science that explains the experience of both autism and autism ‘recovery’ for many years, and despite the alarming statistics, it is such a relief to see the root causes of autism finally getting into the public’s hands. We have all the knowledge we need to clean up the toxic messes we’ve made, between mycology, bacteriology, and plant bioaccumulation of natural toxins like heavy metals. It’s such a relief that we’re finally admitting that what we have done to the planet, we have done to our children. Now, at least, there’s a chance of turning this around!
    Much Appreciation, Jackie McMillan,