Part 4-The Special Ed Epidemic: Uncovering the Answers
In this four-part series, World Mercury Project’s partner, Focus for Health (FFH), examined the special education epidemic, its crippling effects on the US economy, as well as housing and employment issues for individuals with disabilities once they age out of school. Now, let’s look at what could be causing this epidemic, and unlike the broken regulatory agencies and healthcare system, put an end to this crisis by empowering the public with the knowledge to help make informed decisions.
By Sheri A. Marino, MA, CCC-SLP
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has just announced that autism prevalence is up 16% with new data showing that 1 in 59 US children have autism. Autism, developmental delays, and chronic illnesses including allergies and asthma are at an all-time high, affecting 1 in 6 children across the US. The CDC reports that disability costs our nation $400 billion annually in healthcare expenditures. Autism alone is on track to cost the US $460 billion dollars annually by 2025. Genetic studies have failed to turn up genes responsible for allergies, asthma, autism, or ADHD, yet funding for research identifying environmental causes pales in comparison to funding for genetic studies.
Although genetics plays a role in many disease processes, environmental influences can be triggers that turn on those genes. Known as epigenetics, gene expression can be altered from exposures to environmental toxins which can lead to negative health outcomes.
While we may not be able to control our genetic make-up, knowing how certain genetic conditions may affect us and our offspring allows us to take every precaution possible to manage those conditions. Likewise, we may not be able to avoid all environmental toxins, however, if given essential information, individuals can make choices about what environmental risks they are willing to take to keep their total toxic load at a minimum.
A combination of genetic vulnerability and environmental exposures creates susceptibilities for oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, endocrine disruption, and chronic inflammation ultimately leading to immune dysregulation.
Toxins are found in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the products we use, and the vaccines we inject.
If manufacturers like Monsanto (being purchased by Bayer for $62.5 billion) monopolize the food industry, our right to make healthy food choices free of toxins such as pesticides and herbicides is significantly reduced.
If the pharmaceutical industry is not effectively managed by regulatory agencies, we will continue to be manipulated by advertisements for those very same medications which are responsible for poor health outcomes in our children.
If our state governments continue on the path of mandating vaccines, we lose our choice to say no to medical procedures which contain neurotoxins such as mercury and aluminum.
Taking control of our health and the destinies of our offspring starts with having the basic human right to do so. That begins with having essential information which empowers us to make the best decisions for ourselves and our children, and that ends when our basic human rights are taken from us. For all medical procedures, this is the basis of informed consent.
WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?
Through an extensive review of the research, FFH presents a collection of science-based theories on the causation of chronic disease and developmental disability. Individuals are not always informed of their risks by the medical community. While some risks are unavoidable, FFH believes knowledge is power and with access to information, individuals can learn what their risks are to make better healthcare decisions to potentiate positive outcomes, and ultimately protect vulnerable children.
…children who were exposed to more toxins in the womb had more autistic-like behaviors.
What the Science Says on Environmental Exposures
Toxins exist naturally in the environment, however, toxin exposure has increased in developed countries due to the increased use of pesticides and production of synthetic chemicals to manufacture foods and other products. Studies show environmental toxins result in epigenetic alterations to DNA leading to many chronic health issues and disorders.
Toxins can affect the functioning of the brain, heart, lungs, nervous system, and can also alter the bacteria that compose an individual’s microbiome. Furthermore, some toxins act as endocrine disruptors, meaning that they interfere with the body’s biological signals and hormonal system.
The toxins a mother encounters throughout her life will accumulate in her body. This is known as her “body burden.” A mother’s body burden will affect the environment of her womb, which may have a direct impact on the development of her baby. A fetus is particularly susceptible to toxicity because its organs are developing and it has not yet developed its brain-blood barrier.
One study from the Journal Environmental Health Perspectives, has found that children who were exposed to more toxins in the womb had more autistic-like behaviors. Another study found that close proximity to certain pesticides during pregnancy increases the risk of having a child with autism by 60%. Toxin exposure during pregnancy is also associated with high blood pressure, ADHD, heart disease, and various mental disorders. The Environmental Working Group identified 287 toxins in an umbilical cord. Of these chemicals, 180 are known carcinogens to humans and animals, 217 are toxic to the nervous system, and 208 are known to cause birth defects in animal tests. Studies also show that pesticide exposure impacts sperm quality in men, which can affect pregnancy outcomes.
What the Science Says on Diet
According to the CDC, more than half of children worldwide ages 6 months to 5 years suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies. Studies have found that micronutrient deficiencies can negatively impact growth, cognitive ability, neurological, and immune system functioning. One study has found that individuals with ASD are more likely to have micronutrient deficiencies. Another study found that children who consume diets high in fats are more likely to have cognitive impairments. Other studies have found that children who eat more fruits and vegetables have better cardiovascular health compared to those who do not, and they have better health outcomes as adults. Their findings indicate what people eat when they are young is more important for achieving good health outcomes than what people eat when they are older.
Chemical pesticides such as glyphosate are used in agriculture to protect produce against weeds, insects, and other plant diseases.
Pesticides may be toxic to humans, and regular consumption of pesticides from a young age can heighten an individual’s risk for various health problems. Pesticides have been linked to respiratory problems, immune system problems, gastrointestinal issues, impaired cognition and memory, neurological diseases, and various cancers.
There is mounting evidence that suggests gestational pesticide exposure can lead to developmental delays or autism.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are an additional dietary concern for children and adults. Crops which are genetically modified to withstand pesticides, to self-produce insecticides, or to exhibit other desirable traits, are claimed to be harmless to humans, however, comprehensive long-term studies are lacking and some studies show that GMO’s may be hazardous. One study has found that the increasing incidence of 22 different chronic diseases can be linked to the increased use of GMOs in agriculture.
There is a lack of studies that examine the relationship between EMF exposure, autism, and other health conditions. However, some reports suggest that EMF exposure increases the risk for autism and can increase the severity of autism symptoms.
What the Science Says on Electromagnetic Fields (EMF)
Electromagnetic radiation exists naturally in the environment. However, the expansion of technology in the 20th Century has introduced an increasing number of manmade electromagnetic field sources into the environment. Today, 100% of the population is exposed to EMF. The 5 most common sources of EMF include electric fields, magnetic fields, power lines, metal plumbing, and wireless communication.
There appears to be a subset of the population that is more susceptible to EMF than the majority of the population. These individuals are proposed to have “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. They may experience skin conditions (redness, tingling), fatigue, dizziness, nausea, digestive disturbances, and concentration issues. This condition is somewhat akin to multiple chemical sensitivities.
One study suggests there are “remarkable similar biological features between EMF exposure and ASD from cellular oxidative stress to malfunctioning membranes, channels and barriers to genotoxicity, mitochondrial dysfunction, immune abnormalities, inflammatory issues, neuropathological disruption and electrophysiological dysregulation”. This study also suggests the rise in ASD is parallel with the increase in electromagnetic and radio frequency exposures over the past few decades.
There is a lack of studies that examine the relationship between EMF exposure, autism, and other health conditions. However, some reports suggest that EMF exposure increases the risk for autism and can increase the severity of autism symptoms.
…calculations show that the levels of aluminum suggested by the World Health Organization place infants at risk of acute, repeated, and possibly chronic exposures of toxic levels of aluminum in modern vaccine schedules.
What the Science Says on Aluminum
Aluminum is neurotoxic. Aluminum exposure has been associated with disorders including Alzheimer’s and autism. This metal is found in foods we eat, the water we drink, products we use on our bodies, and it is used as an adjuvant in vaccines to enhance immunogenicity. Neurotoxic effects of aluminum are controversial however, a study of human brain tissue from donors with autism showed consistently high levels of aluminum content present in microglia like cells and cells in the meninges, vasculature, and grey and white matter. While regulatory agencies determine how much aluminum is needed to enhance antigenicity and effectiveness of vaccines, they do not take into account safety considerations. In fact, no known published studies have determined levels of aluminum in vaccines based on safety studies.
A new report titled “Reconsideration of the immunotherapeutic pediatric safe dose levels of aluminum” states “When aluminum doses are estimated from Federal Regulatory Code given body weight, exposure from the current vaccine schedule are found to exceed our estimate of a weight corrected Pediatric Dose Limit. Our calculations show that the levels of aluminum suggested by the World Health Organization place infants at risk of acute, repeated, and possibly chronic exposures of toxic levels of aluminum in modern vaccine schedules.”
There is no safe level of mercury exposure.
What the Science Says on Mercury
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mercury is considered to be among the top ten chemicals of major public health concern. It is known to impact the brain, heart, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, and immune system. There is no safe level of mercury exposure.
Dental amalgams have been used for the past 150 years by the dental industry to fill cavities. Dental amalgams contain mercury, a known neurotoxin dangerous to humans even in trace amounts. Mercury vapor leaks from dental amalgams and accumulates in various body tissues or organs. Therefore, the fetus of a mother with dental amalgams will be exposed to mercury for the entire duration of the pregnancy. Mercury is known to cross the placenta, and directly impact the fetus, where it can interfere with the development of the fetus’ brain and central nervous system. The child may continue to be exposed after birth through the mother’s breast milk. One study found 6 or more dental amalgams in the mother raises the risk of having a child with autism 3.2-fold. Furthermore, the severity of autistic behaviors increases with the number of a mother’s dental amalgams.
Other sources of mercury include some over the counter medications, personal care products, and certain fishes such as tuna. In addition, some vaccines still contain mercury.
Mercury in thimerosal has been linked to tics, speech delay and language delay in children (Thompson et al. 2007 NEJM, Barile et al. 2013 J Pediatr Psychol, Verstraeten et al. 2003 Pediatrics, Andrews et al. 2004 Pediatrics) and many published studies also show a relationship with autism and ASD (Geier et al. 2013 Translational Neurodegeneration 2:25, among others).
The CDC recommends pregnant women receive the flu shot, however, if the shot comes from a multi-dose vial, it also contains mercury from the preservative thimerosal. Multi-dose vials are often provided to clinics and pharmacies in lower socio-economic areas. It is estimated that during the 2017-2018 flu season, 20-30 million of the influenza vaccines distributed will contain thimerosal. Thimerosal-containing vaccines (TCV’s) may expose pregnant women to 25 micrograms of mercury. With no blood-brain barrier, the fetus is also exposed as the mercury accumulates in the placenta and cord blood. Furthermore, as indicated in the vaccine manufacturer’s product inserts, no safety or efficacy studies have been conducted on pregnant women or their infants.
…women receiving the seasonal flu shot in the first trimester of pregnancy had 25% greater odds of having a child with ASD.
What the Science Says on Maternal Immune Activation (MIA)
During pregnancy, the developing fetus is vulnerable to the mother’s normal biological response to immune challenge. Recent epidemiological studies indicate that prenatal exposure to inflammatory signals from parasitic, bacterial and viral pathogens including the flu, shows significant correlations with neurological and immunological abnormalities, like autism spectrum disorder. Termed maternal immune activation (MIA), the role of inflammatory mediators during critical gestational periods has been shown to have adverse effects on fetal development.
There are many ways in which the maternal immune system can be activated. A study titled “Prenatal Fever and Autism Risk”supports the hypothesis that maternal fever in pregnancy, regardless of trimester and cause of the fever, is associated with increased risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) among offspring. While earlier studies found that prenatal exposure to infectious agents increased the risk of ASD in offspring, this study supports more recent findings that activation of the maternal immune system has deleterious effects on fetal brain development and plays a role in neurodevelopmental consequences. In this study, fever-associated ASD risk increased markedly with fever frequency particularly after 12 weeks gestation. Acetaminophen worked minimally to mitigate the risks for fevers occurring in the second trimester. Of the 538 cases, ASD was five times more prevalent in boys than girls. The authors’ findings support the hypothesis that in a subset of ASD cases, fever and associated immune disturbances may be implicated.
Vaccines are designed and intended to produce the same biological immune response as natural infection. When a person gets a vaccine, whether during pregnancy or at any other time, an immune response to that vaccine occurs.
Studies show that roughly 5% of the general population will acquire the influenza virus annually, however, if the influenza vaccine does its job, immune activation will occur in 100% of pregnant women who receive the flu shot. Although the Zerbo et al. paper did not show a correlation between the actual flu in pregnancy and ASD, it did show women receiving the seasonal flu shot in the first trimester of pregnancy had 25% greater odds of having a child with ASD.
What the Science Says on Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system mistakenly targets the body’s own cells, tissues, or organs as opposed to foreign antigens invading the body. These self-destructive antibodies create inflammation processes ultimately causing organ damage. Autoimmunity is a result of defects in the B and/or T cells of the immune system and is believed to result from the interplay of genetics, infections, and other environmental exposures.
Mothers with abnormal autoimmune antibodies have a greater risk of poor pregnancy outcomes. There is mounting evidence that shows a mother with autoimmune antibodies is more likely to produce anti-brain antibodies that can cross the placenta and attack the fetal brain, inducing fetal brain inflammation. One study shows mothers of children with autism are 4 times more likely to carry brain reactive antibodies than mothers of typically developing children. Mothers with brain-reactive antibodies were also likely to have an increased prevalence of autoimmune diseases, especially rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus.
Mother’s with celiac disease have a particularly high risk of bearing children with autism or other chronic illness. Celiac disease, a genetic disorder of the small intestine triggered by dietary exposure to gluten (a protein found in wheat), is associated with inflammation, diarrhea, malabsorption, and other gastrointestinal issues. Untreated celiac disease may result in impaired fertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes from autoimmune related mechanisms or nutrient deficiencies. According to this study, “Celiac disease, especially if untreated, appears to increase the risk of repeated miscarriages and premature deliveries, and impaired fetal growth with reduced birthweight.” Additionally, the rate of cesarean delivery was increased if the parents had celiac disease.
Other autoimmune diseases that appear to increase the risk of ASD in offspring include lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 and type 2 Diabetes. Women with rheumatoid arthritis were 80% more likely to have a child with ASD, while children born to diabetic mothers are 4 times more likely to develop autism.
What the Science Says on MTHFR Mutations
Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) is a gene that is responsible for producing an enzyme that converts folic acid to methylfolate, a bioavailable form of vitamin B9. Nutrient deficiencies of Vitamin B6, B12, and folate increase homocysteine levels which cause inflammation in the body. The ability of this gene to turn this switch on or off is crucial for the production of glutathione, the body’s most important antioxidant.
Glutathione plays a major role in the body’s detoxification of harmful, disease causing toxins. When the body’s ability to produce glutathione is decreased, secondary to genetic mutations like an MTHFR mutation, the disease process is enhanced due to the build-up of toxicity in the body. Disorders such as autism, ADHD, autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, heart disease, addiction, miscarriages, and neural tube defects have been linked to MTHFR mutations. Mutations in MTHFR may lead to a condition called homocystinuria, a disorder where there are abnormal levels of homocysteine and methionine in the body which may lead to eye problems, cognitive issues, abnormal blood clotting, skeletal and congenital heart abnormalities.
Glutathione’s key role is the maintenance of intracellular redox balance (oxidation-reduction) and the detoxification of xenobiotics (a chemical or substance foreign to the body). A defective MTHFR gene creates a vulnerability to disease processes as detoxification is impaired, leaving the body more susceptible to oxidative stress, and less tolerant of toxins such as heavy metals.
In children with ASD, the heterozygous allele frequency occurred in 56% of children, whereby the frequency was significantly lower in the control group (41%). This could indicate that there is a genomic vulnerability in the folate pathway to environmental risk factors. Although a review of the research indicates conflicting analysis, some studies show an association exists between MTHFR polymorphisms and an increased risk of ASD, suggesting the modulating role of folate may be affected by the MTHFR genotype. Another study suggests that the enhanced maternal folate status before and during pregnancy may alter natural selection by increasing survival rates of fetuses who have an MTHFR mutation. Presumably, infants with an MTHFR polymorphism cannot maintain the higher folate status after birth, affecting neurodevelopment from the inability to detoxify environmental toxins. For example, individuals with ASD have been shown to have higher levels of heavy metals in their blood, leading researchers to believe that the MTHFR polymorphisms may be partly responsible for increasing their toxicity. While an association is likely, it is unlikely that this mutation is solely responsible for complex neurodevelopmental disorders and more probable that influencing co-factors exist.
Furthermore, only 2 out of the 54 most commonly used prescription and over-the-counter medications have enough data available to determine how they can impact a pregnancy.
What the Science Says on Medication Use During Pregnancy
Prescription drugs may impact the fetus through several mechanisms. They can directly damage the fetus by crossing the placenta, alter the functioning capacity of the placenta so that the fetus’ oxygen and nutrient supply is reduced, induce forceful uterine contractions which can injure the fetus, or indirectly harm the fetus by affecting the internal environment of the mother.
The CDC reports that prescription and over-the-counter medication use during pregnancy has increased by 70% over the past 3 decades. Less than 10% of all medications approved by the FDA since 1980 have been studied well enough to assess their risk for birth complications, and, pregnant women are not included in drug safety trials because of liability concerns. Furthermore, only 2 out of the 54 most commonly used prescription and over-the-counter medications have enough data available to determine how they can impact a pregnancy.
There have been many studies conducted over the years that have examined how specific prescription medications taken during pregnancy may affect the health outcomes of children. Prescription medications that have been associated with an increased risk of birth defects or other childhood health complications include antidepressants, hypertension medications, mycophenolate mofetil (for treating autoimmune diseases), anti-epileptic medications, clomiphene citrate (to treat infertility), sulfonamide and nitrofurantoin (to treat infections), and opioids.
A study from JAMA found that taking antidepressants during the second or third trimester of a pregnancy increased the risk of having a child with autism by 87%, and that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) taken at any point during the pregnancy were associated with an even greater risk of having a child with autism. These researchers note that SSRIs can cross the placenta and impact the development of the fetus. There is also evidence that autistic individuals have high levels of serotonin in their blood platelets and that their brains synthesize serotonin atypically. Another study found that the asthma drugs- beta-2 adrenergic receptor (B2AR) agonists taken 90 days before pregnancy or during pregnancy increase the risk of having a child with autism.
Antibiotic use both medically and agriculturally is a major health concern. The CDC states that approximately 29% of antibiotic prescriptions in the United States in 2015 for children 0-19 years of age were unnecessary. Excessive antibiotic use puts the recipients at risk for adverse reactions or infection and can result in long-term alterations to the recipient’s microbiome. A healthy microbiome is essential for regular metabolism, vitamin production, and homeostasis regulation. Furthermore, babies born vaginally receive their mother’s microbiome as they pass through the birth canal. A mother’s microbiome will be altered when she takes antibiotics before or during pregnancy and can pass this altered microbiome to her child during childbirth.
One study has found that the antibiotics amoxicillin and clavulanate specifically may be contributing to the rise of autism. According to the study, after the introduction of these antibiotics in 1987, the state of California reported an increase in the rate of autism by 273% in a single year. The study proposes that the production of these antibiotics may yield high levels of urea/ammonia in the child. Another study found evidence that taking antibiotics during pregnancy can induce neurodevelopmental changes in the fetus in utero.
Agricultural antibiotics account for approximately 80% of all antibiotic usage in the United States. Animals are treated with low dose antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease and to promote growth. These antibiotics are transferred to humans through the meat we consume, as well as through the crops that were fertilized with the animals’ waste. Consumption of food contaminated with antibiotics can induce the same health consequences as prescribed antibiotics.
…acetaminophen use during pregnancy was associated with a 50% increase in the risk of having a child with autism and hyperkinetic disorder.
Specific over-the-counter medications have also been found to impact the health of the fetus. The commonly used drugs Ibuprofen, ketoprofen, and naproxen are some examples. Acetaminophen has long been considered relatively safe to take during pregnancy, however, acetaminophen use during pregnancy was associated with a 50% increase in the risk of having a child with autism and hyperkinetic disorder. Also, a longer duration of acetaminophen use resulted in a 2-fold increase in the risk of having a child with autism.
Since pregnant women are excluded from trials, some drugs are tested on pregnant animals instead. However, animal studies should not be considered reliable in determining the safety of a drug, as exemplified by the thalidomide incident in the 1950s. Thalidomide was a drug that was intended to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. Although it did not have any adverse effects on the pregnancy outcomes of rats during animal studies, it was found to cause severe and often fatal birth defects in infants and is now recognized as one of the most hazardous known human teratogens.
Although many studies have found associations between medications taken during pregnancy and poor childhood health outcomes, researchers state in their discussions that the exact mechanism through which the drug impacts the fetus remains uncertain.
What the Science Says on Chronic Ear Infections
Ear infections are bacterial or viral infections that occur in the middle ear. Children who experience chronic ear infections should be treated with caution as this could be an indication of a weak, dysregulated, or overactive immune system.
They may be more susceptible to infections, or their immune systems may respond abnormally to environmental triggers. In addition, ear infections are associated with auditory processing problems, which can contribute to learning disabilities or cognitive impairments. Studies have found that children with autism experience chronic ear infections more frequently than their non-autistic counterparts, which may be because individuals with ASD often have dysregulated immune systems.
Ear infections are typically treated with antibiotics. However, antibiotics can alter a child’s gut flora, which may also result in long-term health consequences. A study by B.E. Haley, suggested that the antibiotics ampicillin and tetracycline, which are used to treat such infections, can increase susceptibility to mercury poisoning. Therefore, there is potential for increased risk of vaccine related adverse events.
One study led by Eileen Curran has found that CD’s increase the risk of autism or autism-related symptoms in a child by as much as 23%.
What the Science Says on Cesarean Deliveries
Cesarean deliveries (CD’s) have risen by 48% since 1996, and now account for 32% of all births in the U.S. The trend of elective CD’s continues to increase. While some CD’s are unavoidable, many are scheduled out of convenience for the family or physician. CD’s are associated with negative health outcomes for the baby and there are multiple mechanisms for these outcomes.
Researchers believe Cesarean deliveries can alter an infant’s microbiome by depriving him or her of the beneficial bacteria he or she receives while passing through the birth canal in a vaginal delivery. A compromised microbiome can lead to impaired immunity and metabolic dysregulation.
Several studies have found an association between Cesarean deliveries and autism. One study led by Eileen Curran has found that CD’s increase the risk of autism or autism-related symptoms in a child by as much as 23%.
In another study, researchers found approximately 40% greater risk of developing immune defects and a 10% greater risk of developing juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when born by CD. Additionally, the study shows children are more frequently hospitalized due to asthma, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disorder, immune system defects, leukemia, and other tissue disorders.
What the Science Says on Breast Feeding
Breastfeeding is important for a baby’s health. It provides the baby with necessary nutrients, helps to strengthen the baby’s immune system, and promotes growth. Various studies have found that children who were breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of life were less likely to contract an infection, develop diseases, or develop allergies. Furthermore, breastmilk is more easily digested, promotes digestive health, and helps to establish and maintain the child’s microbiome.
A study from Science Daily has found that breastfeeding reduces the chance that a mother’s child will develop autism. According to this study, a child may develop autism because his brain neurons are unmyelinated. Demyelination may occur because the child has an inadequate supply of insulin-like growth factor (IGF), which is due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors. The study proposes that breast milk, which contains IGF, increases deficient IGF levels in susceptible children and helps to prevent the onset of autism.
A mother’s breast milk, however, can also create vulnerability in her child. There is mounting evidence that shows toxins in a mother’s breastmilk increases the chances that a child will develop autism or other health complications. A mother may be exposed to toxins through her environment or diet.
Babies are particularly susceptible to toxin exposure because they are at a stage of rapid physical development and their immune systems are not fully developed. Breastfeeding provides the most health benefits for the child if the mother’s diet is healthy and clean.
What the Science Says on Low Birth Weight
The average baby weighs 8 pounds. Any baby born less than 5 pounds and 8 ounces is considered low birth weight. Low birth weight is associated with various health complications such as poor growth, increased susceptibility to infection, and a higher risk of developing neurological problems.
The two main causes of low birth weight include preterm birth and intrauterine growth restriction. Risk factors for low birth weight include poor maternal health, toxin exposure, nutrient deficiency, preexisting chronic or autoimmune disease, and low socioeconomic status. According to the CDC, mothers without a college education are 29% more likely to have underweight babies.
One study found that low birth weight was associated with irregular brain structure development and smaller total brain volume. The finding indicates that birthweight can have a profound influence on health outcomes later in life. Another study found that 5% of babies born weighing less than 4.7 pounds developed autism, while 11% of babies born weighing less than 3.5 pounds developed autism. The researchers believe that the risk for autism increases with decreasing birth weight.
What the Science Says on Chronic Stress During Pregnancy
Since maternal immune response, absent of infection in the fetus, can cause harm to the fetal brain, maternal stress therefore creates vulnerability. Studies have shown that prenatal maternal stress (PNMS) increases the production of stress hormones like cortisol which prepares individuals to deal with stress. Cortisol plays a role in the development of the fetus and in preparing the mother’s body for childbirth. However, attenuations of elevated maternal cortisol from chronic stress can cause immune dysregulation and chronic inflammation which greatly increases the risk of poor health outcomes in the fetus. Research suggests that offspring of mothers who experience high levels of stress during pregnancy are more likely to have problems in neurobehavioral development including autism and ADHD and have an increased risk for childhood behavior and emotional problems, language delay, cognitive problems, mixed handedness, and later onset disorders such as schizophrenia.
Additionally, maternal stress as a social determinant of health creates vulnerability in children as it is associated with low birth weight, diminishes innate immunity, and increases the likelihood of neurological dysfunction.
What the Science Says on High Testosterone
Hormones play a central role in body functions and processes, including growth and development, behavior, metabolism, reproduction, and fetal development. Fetal and maternal hormone levels are required in precise amounts at different points during the pregnancy to dictate the migration of fetal cells and mediate fetal growth. Any alterations in these hormone levels can impact the development of the fetus.
Amniotic fluids of mothers whose children developed autism were found to have elevated levels of testosterone, other sex hormones, and cortisol compared to the amniotic fluids of mothers whose children developed normally.
Male fetuses are particularly susceptible to sex hormones, and overexposure to sex hormones in the womb has been linked to reproductive malformations. It has been found that every one-percent increase in reproductive malformations in a given area is associated with a 283% increase in the rate of autism and a 94% increase in intellectual disability.
Testosterone works synergistically with mercury to enhance its toxicity. This may contribute to poor pregnancy outcomes in mothers who receive certain vaccinations during pregnancy or in those who are exposed to mercury from other sources.
What the Science Says on Advanced Parental Age
Researchers believe there are many associations with parental age at the time of conception and its deleterious effects on children’s health. Studies have shown advancing paternal and maternal age were both associated with poor pregnancy outcomes.
In one study, fathers over 50 years of age had a 66% higher chance of having a child with autism. This same study also found mothers over age 40 and under age 20 increased the risk of autism. A second study shows father’s over age 45 at time of conception, when compared with fathers between 20-24 yrs. of age, had a heightened chance of having offspring with autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric and academic morbidities. The effects of advanced paternal age on semen quality are controversial. However, the literature strongly points to issues with spermatogenesis, specifically epigenetic changes, and DNA mutations associated with increased paternal age.
Women, born with a set number of eggs, may be more susceptible to de novo mutations when an older egg is fertilized. These first time mutations are believed to be influenced by epigenetic changes affecting DNA replication, thereby increasing the rate of autism and other chronic health issues in the offspring. Epigenetic alterations associated with age can result from long-term exposures to environmental toxins, substance abuse, prescription medication usage, and diet. While younger moms have had less exposure to environmental toxins, researchers speculate their associated risk may be related to immature reproductive systems. Researchers also suggest disparity of more than 10 years between parents’ ages has also been shown to increase the risk of autism, although the mechanism is unknown.
There is contradictory evidence to support to what extent the age of the parents affects the health outcomes of their children. For example, a study published in Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, found that while children of older parents are more likely to have autism, they are not more likely to have other neurological disorders such as schizophrenia. However, another study by Nature Genetics, finds older fathers have a higher risk of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. Furthermore, many studies draw contradictory conclusions as to which age brackets pose the highest risk for poor health outcomes of children. Ultimately, researchers believe there are underlying reasons as to why older parents are more likely to have children with autism, however, the exact mechanisms are unknown.
Many theories above are controversial because scientific studies sometimes contradict each other. This could be due to many factors including sample size, bias, and sometimes interpretation. When studies continue to show evidence supporting both sides, the science is not settled. When it comes to protecting our children’s health, minimizing risks should be the only thing that is mandatory.
About the Author: Sheri A. Marino, MA, CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech and language pathologist with over 25 years of clinical experience specializing in autism. As the Director of Pediatric Health Initiatives for the Focus for Health Foundation, Sheri contributes her clinical expertise authoring articles on autism and other chronic health issues and also manages the pediatric health grantees. Sheri’s professional experiences help guide the Foundation’s mission addressing chronic health issues related to environmental causes. Sheri also serves as the Executive Director of The Autism Think Tank, NJ, a non-profit organization which offers medical videoconferences with a team of renowned medical experts who collaborate on medically complex cases of autism around the globe. She is the founder of Rocking Horse Rehab, a pediatric rehabilitation and family wellness center specializing in therapy services for children with various disabilities including, autism, cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy, brain tumors, and rare syndromes, neuromuscular and psychiatric disorders. Sheri has been featured on CBS News, NBC News, NJN and multiple cable networks. Focus for Health, a World Mercury Project Partner.
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The above article (Part 4-The Special Ed Epidemic: Uncovering the Answers) was contributed to TLB Project by World Mercury Project and is republished here with attribution to author Sheri A. Marino, MA, CCC-SLP, and forums Focus For Health, and World Mercury Project
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