Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

Baby teeth to provide autism clues

Teeth swiped from tooth fairies could provide important information about the link between chemicals and autism. Researchers are excited.

We already know that timing is a critical piece of the autism/chemical connection. Scientists now say that by grinding up baby teeth, they can accurately measure not only what toxicants children have been exposed to, but precisely when.

A few weeks ago, researchers in Texas reported the results of their mass spectrometry examination of baby teeth. They found breakdown products of organophosphate pesticides and plasticizers in 21 molars of young, healthy children collected from a local dental clinic.

Small teeth provide hard evidence

Now the scientists are collecting hundreds of teeth from a combination of autistic and healthy children to see if any of the exposures found — at particular windows in utero or during early childhood — are linked to higher rates of autism. If you know a tooth fairy in Texas and you'd like to contribute, give the researchers a call.

Dr. David Camann, lead author of the report and a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, explained the approach to reporters:

If you're looking at autism, you'd like to go back and look at when was the exposure: before birth, or in the early years when the autism might have developed. And there has been no way to do that, but we thought the teeth might be a way to accomplish it.

And it looks like the approach may just work.

Toward autism prevention

Some chemicals have been measured in baby teeth for years. Back in the '70s, elevated lead levels in teeth were linked to low IQ scores, and the evidence helped push forward efforts to eliminate childhood lead exposure. But the tools to measure pesticides and other more complex chemicals are new.

Many scientists now point to both genetic and environmental factors as interacting drivers of autism. While genetic factors are beyond our control, chemical contaminants are not. So specific information about which chemicals are involved and what windows of exposure are most important could well move us toward autism prevention.

With rates rising so dramatically in recent years, such hard evidence from the tooth fairy — followed up by smart and protective policy choices — could help us turn the autism tide.

Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

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