On Autism Awareness Day | Pesticide Action Network
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On Autism Awareness Day

Medha Chandra's picture
Autism boy

World Autism Awareness Day is on April 2 this year. It's a day to shine a light on this condition and reaffirm our support for adults and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and for their families. It's also a day to learn more about what increases risks of autism — and to think about prevention.

ASD and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, but is almost five times more common among boys than among girls. CDC officials estimate that about 1 in 68 children has been diagnosed with ASD. While there are many things that cause autism in children, such as genetic factors and a mother’s prenatal health, an increasingly strong body of science links autism risk with prenatal exposure to environmental contaminants like pesticides.

The pesticide-autism link

Over the past few years studies have shown that:

  • Mothers who live within a mile of fields where toxic pesticides are applied have a 60 percent higher risk of having kids with autism. The link is strongest with the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos;
  • Children conceived in March (which coincides with peak pesticide spray season in California) are 16% more likely to be born with autism, according to medical records of 7 million California children; and
  • Prenatal pesticide exposure can lead to children with lower IQs and learning deficits later in life.

In the light of all this scientific evidence, consider the fact that in the state of California alone, over 500,000 children in hundreds of schools — and their teachers — spend their days within 1/4 mile of agricultural pesticide applications. Of these, more than 100,000 (mostly Latino) children in 226 schools attend classrooms near fields with the heaviest pesticide use. One of the top 10 pesticides most used near schools in the state is chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that was banned for use in homes more than a decade ago because it was known to harm children's developing nervous systems.

While there isn't enough research to show that there are links between pesticide exposure in school-age children and autism, there are many other health risks for children who are routinely exposed to hazardous pesticides, including cancers, reproductive effects and compromised brain development. Additionally, the hundreds of teachers and other school staff of child bearing age are also at risk of exposure to these pesticides near schools and in rural communities.

Autism prevention

All of this underscores the message that we keep repeating: autism awareness is not enough. It's time to take actions for prevention wherever possible, including curbing exposure to environmental toxins that can increase risk.

Here are some actions we can take on an individual level and as members of our larger communities:

  • Prevent and limit exposure to pesticides during pregnancy;
  • Use Integrated Pest Management practices for pest control at home, in the workplace and in the community;
  • Support organic farming, which ensures that farmers and rural communities do not have to deal with hazardous pesticide exposure and that our families and children are not exposed to pesticide residues on food; and
  • Call on our legislators and regulators to ensure that the most hazardous pesticides — especially the ones that cause brain harm to children — are phased out and replaced by agroecological farming practices.

This year on April 2, when we wear blue, run and walk to support autism charities, and take other steps to help family and friends who may be living with autism, let's not forget the work that needs to be done on autism prevention. Protecting children and pregnant women from brain-harming pesticides would go a long way toward that end.

Medha Chandra
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Medha Chandra is PAN's Campaign Coordinator. Her work focuses on pesticide impacts on maternal and children’s health as well as international pesticide campaigns. She works closely with network members from other PAN regional centers around the world. Follow @ChandraMedha