The Top Ten Chemicals Suspected to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities


What do the following 10 chemical substances have in common?

Lead, methyl mercury, PCB’s, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s), Polyfluorinated compounds (PFC’s), pesticides, organophosphate pesticides, bisphenol A and other endocrine disruptors, automotive exhaust, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s).

First, they are found in the tissues of almost every child in the US. Second, they are toxic to many systems, including nervous and immune systems. Third, they are all man-made (“anthropogenic”), new and foreign to this planet (“xenobiotics”). Fourth, they were the subject of my talk to Autism One in 2005 (“What Else Besides Mercury Is Injuring Our Children?”, regarding cycles of damage caused by these common agents and others), Fifth, they have been recently linked to autism by researchers at the Children’s Environmental Health Center of Mt Sinai School of Medicine (Landrigan P et al: Env Health Perspectives, July 2012: v. 120, #7). Sixth, they are all avoidable to a large extent (see blog number 2 regarding PFOA and PBDE’s), by choices we make as individuals (and of course, as a society which cares about its children).

Reducing exposure and body load of these and other toxins will improve our children’s health and functioning. The actions needed are many, and may be daunting, and so, it is important to start with the simple steps which you can take, and expand to other steps as you are able. In working to reduce or eliminate our exposure to these major toxins, the focus needs to be on a few fundamental areas, as follows.

  1. Our food supply: Choosing certified organically produced foods will markedly reduce exposure to pesticides and herbicides, also to antibiotics, some heavy metals (such as arsenic in commercial chickens, lead in cinnamon and chocolate, mercury in corn syrup and fish, etc.), and will also eliminate or minimize exposure to GMO foods (which have their own significant problems). Remember to avoid the dirty dozen foods in particular (
  2. Our water supply for drinking and washing: Using a good filter for drinking water and for shower and bath will protect against perchlorate (thyroid disruptor found in explosives and fireworks), chlorinated solvents which are neurotoxic, PAH’s lead, and pesticides.
  3. Food storage and cook ware: Avoiding plastic, foil, aluminum and nonstick pans will protect against phthalates, Bisphenol A (both endocrine disruptors), aluminum and polyfluorinated toxins.
  4. Household products:cleaning agents, cosmetics, yard care agents can all be significant sources of toxins such as endocrine disruptors, pesticides, exhaust fumes (Our electric rechargeable mower is a dream, and the little electric rototiller is great—so quiet and clean), where alternative agents and methods are readily available. You may have to accept a few weeds in your lawn in exchange for healthier children, but I think it’s worth it. Choose green household agents, and edible cosmetics Your skin, and your baby do eat your cosmetics, which may contain heavy metals and endocrine disruptors. Try for safe cosmetics.
  5. Furniture, furnishings, light bulbs, paint, floor coverings, home heating and cooking: The kitchen is the most toxic room in the house, mostly because of cooking fumes, which can be reduced by good exhaust fans, and by steaming, baking, or cooking on low heat—reducing PAH’s which are immune and DNA toxins. Fluorescent light bulbs contain large amounts of mercury, and must be disposed of very carefully, and never broken in the home (is this possible?)—maybe LED’s and incandescents are worth the cost. Glues, paints, vinyl floor covering, synthetic carpets and pads, combustion heating and cooking systems all contribute to the very poor air quality in most American homes. Aim to use water based, low VOC paints; choose wood, carpet from natural materials, tile or true linoleum flooring, electric rather than gas ranges, non-combustion heating (solar, electric, or combustion systems located outside of the home). The bedroom is a very important place—see blog #2 for guidance about bedding materials, and consider using an air filter to purify the air, in addition to clearing out toxic floor coverings, stuffed animals and dolls from synthetic materials, furniture made from particle board or other synthesized materials and glues, etc. Avoid plastic toys also.
  6. Home location: avoid locations near major toxin emitters such as freeways and busy streets, heavy industry, golf courses, nurseries or other toxic agricultural activities. Also beware of water seepage and mold problems, and of radon issues in basements in your area (a significant problem only in some areas of the country). If your home was built before 1975, be aware of the likelihood of lead in the paint, and of the possibility of very long acting pesticides/termiticides whose residues may still be in the soil and structure of your home. These problems can be identified by a good home evaluation and analysis.
  7. Your car: that new car smell of rubber and vinyl and glue is not a healthy mixture. It would be better to buy a pre-owned car which as off-gassed, and which was not owned by a smoker.
  8. Schools: Ask questions: do they use pesticides on the playground, do the buses idle their diesel engines near the school (they could be turned off until the kids have loaded), are the custodians receptive to replacing their industrial toxic cleaners with green cleaners, are the science labs well ventilated, and how does the air quality feel/smell to you when you taste it? What kinds of food does the cafeteria serve?

This is a long, and, sadly, not exhaustive list. There are so many choices we have made in the name of progress and convenience, which add to the toxic load of our children and contribute directly to the problems of autistic spectrum disorders and many other chronic childhood conditions, and it is not possible to address all of them. Some of the alternatives are simple and inexpensive, and some are very complex or expensive. Start where you can, and begin to provide your child with a truly healthy environment. With all of us working together, we can begin to reclaim the health of our children, and perhaps also our own health and the health of the planet.

-John A Green III MD