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Autism and Disappearing Bees: A Common Denominator?

Brian Moench

A few days ago the Salt Lake Tribune’s front page headline declared, "Highest rate in the nation, 1 in 32 Utah boys has autism."  This is a national public health emergency, whose epicenter is Utah, Gov. Herbert.  A more obscure story on the same day read: "New pesticides linked to bee population collapse."  If you eat food, and hope to do so in the future, this is another national emergency, Pres. Obama.  A common  denominator may underlie both headlines. 

A Stanford University study with 192 pairs of twins, with one twin autistic and one not, found that genetics accounts for 38% of the risk of autism, and environmental factors account for  62%.  

Supporting an environmental/genetic tag team are other studies showing autistic children and their mothers have a high rate of a genetic deficiency in the production of glutathione,  an anti-oxidant and the body’s primary means of detoxifying heavy metals.  High levels of toxic metals in children are strongly correlated with the severity of autism.  Low levels of glutathione, coupled with high production of another chemical, homocysteine, increase the chance of a mother having an autistic child to one in three.  That autism is four times more common among boys than girls is likely related to a defect in the single male X chromosome contributing to anti-oxidant deficiency.   There is no such thing as a genetic disease epidemic  because genes don't change that quickly.  So the alarming rise in autism must be the result of increased environmental exposures that exploit these genetic defects.

During the critical first three months of gestation a human embryo adds 250,000 brain cells per minute reaching 200 billion by the fifth month.  There is no chemical elixir that improves this biologic miracle, but thousands of toxic substances can cross the placenta and impair that process, leaving brain cells stressed, inflamed, less well developed, fewer in number and with fewer connections with each other all of which diminish brain function.  The opportunity to repair the resulting deficits later on is limited.

The list of autism’s environmental suspects is long and comes from many studies that show higher rates of autism with greater exposure to flame retardants, plasticizers like BPA,  pesticides, endocrine disruptors in personal care products, heavy metals in air pollution, mercury, and pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants.  (Utah’s highest in the nation autism rates are matched by the highest rates of anti-depressant use and the highest mercury levels in the country in the Great Salt Lake). 

Doctors have long advised women during pregnancy to avoid any unnecessary consumption of drugs or chemicals.  But as participants in modern society we are all now exposed to over 83,000 chemicals from the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the consumer products we use.  Pregnant women and their children have 100 times more chemical exposures today than 50 years ago.  The average newborn has over 200 different chemicals and heavy metals contaminating  its blood when it takes its first breath. 158 of them are toxic to the brain.  Little wonder that rates of autism, attention deficit and behavioral disorders are all on the rise.

How does this relate to vanishing bees and our food supply?  Two new studies, published simultaneously in the journal Science,  show that the rapid rise in use of insecticides is likely responsible for the mass disappearance of bee populations.   The world’s food chain hangs in the balance because 90% of native plants require pollinators to survive.

The brain of insects is the intended target of these insecticides.  They disrupt the bees homing behavior and their ability to return to the hive, kind of like “bee autism.”   But insects are different than humans, right?   Human and insect nerve cells share the same basic biologic infrastructure.  Chemicals that interrupt electrical impulses in insect nerves will do the same to humans.  But humans are much bigger than insects and the doses to humans are  miniscule, right?

During critical first trimester development a human is no bigger than an insect so there is every reason to believe that pesticides could wreak havoc with the developing brain of a human embryo.   But human embryos aren’t out in corn fields being sprayed with insecticides, are they?  A recent study showed that every human tested had the world’s best selling pesticide, Roundup, detectable in their urine at concentrations between five and twenty times the level considered safe for drinking water.

The autism epidemic and disappearing bees are real public health emergencies created by allowing our world to be overwhelmed by environmental toxins.  Environmental protection is human protection, especially for the smallest and most vulnerable among us.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Brian Moench

Dr. Brian Moench is President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a practicing anesthesiologist in Salt Lake City. He is a former adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah.

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