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New federal data shows autism rates are booming. Local researchers are finding industrial chemicals may play a role

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Photo: Michael Brajas, License: N/A

Michael Brajas

Rafael Hernandez, here with his former teacher Tish Hernandez, volunteers two days a week at Any Baby Can.

Photo: Greg Harman, License: N/A

Greg Harman

Ray Palmer has drawn stark lines between ambient mercury exposure in Bexar County and local incidence of autism.

CPS Energy spokesperson Christine Patmon said that utility officials could not comment on the report directly, since they are not "health experts or researchers." She stressed, however, mercury reductions on the way from Activated Carbon Injection systems being installed on the newer Spruce units this year that are expected to bring emissions down on those units by 80 percent or more. The older Deely units, set to be shuttered in 2018, will have the same upgrade in 2015 to comply with tightening federal standards, she said.

The rise of the chemical-exposure narrative has captured the attention of advocacy groups like Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, too, which followed the CDC's March announcement with another call for federal passage of the Safe Chemicals Act, an effort first introduced in Congress in 2010 that would place a greater onus on manufacturers to prove their chemicals will not harm the public before they are approved for the market and lead to stronger action on known toxic hotspots around the country. "This is one of those rare areas where public opinion is actually ahead of elite opinion and more accurately reflects the science," Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, told the Current. "There are a lot of chronic diseases, of which autism may be the most prominent, but also childhood cancers, infertility, other learning disabilities, are all on the rise. And there's also a lot of evidence suggesting that the environment generally and chemicals in particular contribute to that."

Another study that has assisted in elevating the role of the environment over genetics was the California Autism Twins Study that tracked 54 pairs of identical twins and 138 fraternal twin pairs where at least one twin had a diagnosis of autism. That landmark study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry last year found that environmental factors were likely behind 55 percent of autism cases. Genetics, the team of researchers reported, played a role about 37 percent of the time.

The findings will likely help fuel interest in Miller's proposed Environmental Medical Unit, a medical safe house where children and adults would be able to fully detox from potentially harmful chemicals in the environment to better understand the role such contaminants play. Or, as Miller writes in a paper presented to the Autism Society of America in 2006, "The EMU will allow us to 'see' the role of exposures in [autism spectrum disorders] and other illnesses, just as the microscope enabled scientists to see 'germs' responsible for infectious diseases in the 1800s. The EMU is the only way I know to eliminate all the background exposures simultaneously and optimize a child's environment."

But would-be parents don't have to wait until autism's precursors are definitively understood to make informed decisions. Miller encourages people to adopt a "personal precautionary principle." Largely, it boils down to avoidance. After all, fetal brain and nervous system development is an exquisite process driven by minute chemical signals instructing neurons where and how to wire up. Such processes are most critical during those first few weeks of pregnancy and continue as many happy couples are designing new rooms for baby — rooms that are frequently filled with potentially problematic paint fumes, chemical fragrances, and even bedding that can "off-gas" synthetic chemicals.

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