Autism and Lead Toxicity

There has been much debate about the causes of autism, from genetics to diet. Many have suspected a link to heavy metals. According to a 2017 NIH study, strong evidence of this link has been found in the baby teeth of children with autism, indicating early life lead exposure (see below).

The question is why would autism rates be increasing if lead toxicity rates are not increasing. One thing to keep in mind that, though lead pollution has declined, the environment remains filled with lead and other heavy metals — in the soil, paint, and pipes. Lead exposure still is extremely common and even low doses can be damaging.

That brings us to a recent congressional investigation released a couple of days ago (see below). Most of us may not be breathing more lead pollution and paint dust, or drinking more lead in our water. But we might still be getting excessive levels of lead in our food. The congressional investigation specifically found toxic levels in nearly all baby food.

What is uncertain is if this represents some kind of change. Has there been a change in farming practices or a change somewhere else in the food supply that is increasing heavy metal concentration? Or is it some combination of other factors that is somehow worsening the effect of already present heavy metals accumulated in the soil?

Basically, why does the autism rate appear to be on the rise? That is a mystery, if we invoke lead toxicity as the central cause. Overall, lead toxicity rates have been on a decline, compared to the heavy toll of lead toxicity that spiked with the childhood of GenXers and young Boomers during the 1960s and 1970s, prior to environmental regulations.

Looking at baby teeth and baby food might help to grasp the key factor. It’s not about lead exposure in general but at a specific period of development. What we need to be looking at is the lead toxicity rates of babies and pregnant mothers, but such testing is not standard. Children typically are only tested after, not before, they show health and developmental problems.

So, it’s possible that, even though there is less lead exposure on average across childhood and adulthood, lead exposure in infancy might have gone up. This could be caused, for example, by increasing import of baby food from countries with weak environmental regulations and more heavy chemical use in farming.

This is concerning, as the long-term affects of heavy metal toxicity are diverse and sometimes devastating — besides autism: behavioral issues, impulse control issues, aggression, lowered IQ, etc; along with physical health problems. We might be seeing another generation or two of lead toxicity damage, exacerbated by the poor communities still struggling with already high rates of lead toxicity from old housing and industrial residue.

* * *

Baby teeth link autism and heavy metals, NIH study suggests
from National Institutes of Health

Baby teeth from children with autism contain more toxic lead and less of the essential nutrients zinc and manganese, compared to teeth from children without autism, according to an innovative study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health. The researchers studied twins to control genetic influences and focus on possible environmental contributors to the disease. The findings, published June 1 in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that differences in early-life exposure to metals, or more importantly how a child’s body processes them, may affect the risk of autism.

The differences in metal uptake between children with and without autism were especially notable during the months just before and after the children were born. The scientists determined this by using lasers to map the growth rings in baby teeth generated during different developmental periods.

The researchers observed higher levels of lead in children with autism throughout development, with the greatest disparity observed during the period following birth.

Leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sold products with high levels of toxic metals, a congressional investigation found
by Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Four leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sold baby food that contained high levels of toxic heavy metals, according to internal company documents included in a congressional investigation released Thursday.

“Dangerous levels of toxic metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury exist in baby foods at levels that exceed what experts and governing bodies say are permissible,” said Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which conducted the investigation, signed by the Democratic members.

Krishnamoorthi said the spreadsheets provided by manufacturers are “shocking” because they show evidence that some baby foods contain hundreds of parts per billion of dangerous metals. “Yet we know that in a lot of cases, we should not have anything more than single digit parts per billion of any of these metals in any of our foods,” he told CNN.

Chemicals of concern for children

Arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury are in the World Health Organization’s top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children.

As natural elements, they are in the soil in which crops are grown and thus can’t be avoided. Some crop fields and regions, however, contain more toxic levels than others, partly due to the overuse of metal-containing pesticides and ongoing industrial pollution.

“There was a time where we used metals as the predominant pesticide for many years, assuming it was safe,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone.

All of these heavy metals have been linked to cancer, chronic disease and neurotoxic effects, but it’s the devastating damage that can be done to a developing baby’s brain that makes baby food toxicity so critical.

The US Food and Drug Administration has not yet set minimum levels for heavy metals in most infant food. The agency did set a standard of 100 parts per billion inorganic arsenic for infant rice cereal, but even that level is considered much too high for baby’s safety, critics say, especially since the FDA has already set a much lower standard of 10 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic for bottled water.

From the time of conception through the age of 2, babies have an extremely high sensitivity to neurotoxic chemicals, said Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.

“Their brain is forming rapidly, and so when they’re exposed to metals that can interrupt those natural processes, the impacts range from behavioral problems to aggression to IQ loss and all kinds of cognitive and behavioral deficits that can persist throughout life,” Houlihan said.

“Pound for pound, babies get the highest dose of these heavy metals compared to other parts of the population,” she said. “So the consequences are serious.”

Healthy Babies Bright Futures published a report in 2019 that found toxic metals in 95% of the baby foods randomly pulled off supermarket shelves and tested — that exposé was the “inspiration” for the subcommittee’s work, Krishnamoorthi told CNN.

12 thoughts on “Autism and Lead Toxicity

  1. How did babies eat before baby food? Wouldn’t the alternative to lead tainted food just involve blending a bunch of fruits with some protein? I want to think of alternatives.

    • Babies don’t need special food. In most societies prior to industrialized food systems, once weaned, the first foods eaten were not necessarily different than what adults ate. Even meat can be chopped or ground up small. There is nothing particularly special about pureed jars of baby food.

      Plenty of websites share info about making healthy food for babies. For example, the Weston A. Price Foundation is a fount of info on traditional foods. They put out a lot of articles out about diet and nutrition for babies and children, along with healthy eating for expectant mothers and women seeking to become pregnant.

      People choose commercial baby foods for the same reason they choose disposable diapers and such. It’s convenient. But that doesn’t entirely explain it. Mashing up some whole foods for your baby isn’t exactly difficult. I think it comes down to marketing and advertising, and most moder people have become disconnected from traditional healthy diets.

  2. What a horrible tale. I guess there is so much damage done that we do not even know about. Hopefully science can eventually improve the way we live to the point one reads about in the better science fiction books. Although sadly we will be long gone.

    • The baby teeth research is a gamechanger. In the past, we could only test for present lead toxicity, not past lead toxicity. But a child might not have any present lead exposure while already having been harmed by an earlier exposure. This might cause us to realize how bad lead toxicity is in the general population.

      Here is what is obvious to anyone who has been around kids these days. They have a lot of psychiatric, neuocognitive, and behavioral issues. It’s not only autism rates that have risen over time but also ADHD, depression, psychosis, etc. But if there has been some new factor introducing higher levels of lead to the young, then we won’t see the worst effects until two decades later. That is the pattern research shows. It’s when an entire generation of lead-damaged babies reaches adulthood that society experiences a spike of homicides, suicides, and violent crimes.

      That is one of the long-term consequences of lead toxicity, a combination of increased aggression and decreased impulse control, along with lowered IQ and other cognitive issues — basically, people who aren’t able to be normal and fully functional within society. It’s a horrible fate for these victims and a horrible curse for society. The last time we dealt with this problem by mass incarceraton, which simply targeted and scapegated the victims, rather than helping them.

      Yet we still haven’t mustered the political will to clean up the lead paint and piping in the old houses and schools that poor people are forced to use. If we did have such political will, there are easy ways of cleaning up lead from the soil as well by use of certain plants. It would be expensive, but the cost would be a fraction of dealing with the consequences later. This is another example of what many of the founders warned about, that of one generation forcing costs onto another generation.

    • Here is the worst part of it. Lead toxicity has largely been confined to poor communities. And blacks and other minorities are disporportonately poor.

      This isn’t only about blacks being trapped in old once-thiving-but-now-decaying inner cities and post-industrial areas. What has created this sad situation are the continuing efects of systemic racist housing and employment practices (e.g., redlining), whereas most poor whites were given the opportunity of eductaion, jobs and housing as they fled to the suburbs.

      To add injury to injury, research has shown that politicians (i.e., mostly wealthier whites) are more likely to place toxic dumps in poor minority communities because such populations don’t have the wealth, power, and privilege to fight back. And in these communities with toxic dumps there indeed are higher rates of heavy metal toxicity. It inevitably leeches out of the dumps.

      Then to add insult to injury upon injury, there are all the other forms of racial oppression and injustice. Poor black children are poisoned with lead, malnourished from a poverty diet, confined within bleak urban areas with no access to nature, often having no clean air to breathe or clean water to drink. Then, on top of that, they are brutalized by police and put into a school-to-prison pipeline.

      The evil racist assholes wonder why these populations have so many problems. Even when the police kill an innocent black person, the political right and much of the corporate media will immediately look for some reason to excuse the crime by suggesting the black deserved it. In being harassed by the police every day of their life, they probably have a criminal record. Or maybe they were illegally selling cigarettes on the sidewalk trying to make some extra money to buy food or pay the bills.

      That was the case of Freddie Gray who was killed by the police, one of the early cases of injustice that inspired the BLM protest movement. It’s not only that his life ended sadly for it began sadly as well. Along with his sisters, he had a severe case of lead poisoning in childhood. This was probably the cause of his severe learning disability that resulted in him to dropping out of high school, one bad effect leading to another. Baltimore, where he lived, was one of those old industrial cities filled with heavy metal toxins.

      This is part of what some call environental racism, which is part of an even larger category of hidden violence and slow violence. Toxins can’t be seen and there effect is cumulative over years with results sometimes not fully seen for decades. In a poisoned population, all that is seen are the effects, not the generations of intersectional factors that are the root cause. Consider the fact that 40% of the deaths worldwide are caused by air pollutioin, which is not even to include deaths from pollutants and toxins in the water, soil, and buildings.

      So, the police who are already racist toward blacks see individuals who have been harmed by other effects of racism such as trapped in lead-saturated neighborhoods. It’s prejudice upon prejudice, compounded by centuries of oppression and harm. Much of this probably has become built into black bodies at an epigenetic level. Even slavery is within the reach of epigenetic influence. I’d imagine heavy metal toxins would also have dramatic impact on the epigenome, along with contributing to de novo mutations that are linked to conditions like autism.

      One might see lead-poisoned baby food as leveling the playing food. Even babies of wealthier parents eat baby food, after all. But there is a big difference. Middle-to-upper class parents can afford to buy expensive organic baby food that would be less likely to contain higher levels of lead. The studies show that around 5% or so of baby food has safe levels of lead and I’m sure that correlates to price. But also wealthier parents, even merely lower middle class, can afford to get their children help when they do have problems.

      An example of this are my brothers. They are lower middle class and when they first had kids they were economically struggling. So, in seeking housing in their price range, they were forced to buy old houses that likely had lead in paint and pipes. All of the kids did grow up with neurocognitive issues: autism, social commnication disorder, learning disability, obsessive-compulsion disorder, depression, etc — all of it diagnosed. But my brothers now have solid professional jobs with good healthcare insurance. They can afford to regularly bring their kids to good doctors, therapists, and experts to help with developing social skills and learning skills.

      Also, my brothers themselves grew up upper middle class and so had all of the advantages that went with it. And, of course, they are white and have always lived in places that were majority white or else in places, like the Deep South, where racial privilege was blatantly built into the social order. They were able to draw upon so many more opportunities and resources to help their children with problems, not that it’s always been easy. But even my nephew with the most social and learning problems, as a middle class white boy in a small white town, is unlikely to be killed by the police no matter what kind of trouble he might get into. Blacks trapped in povety like Freddie Grays family had no such good fortune.

  3. It should be noted there are complicating and confounding factors, as always. For example, the issue of baby food crosses over into diet. Rice, in particular, draws lead out of the soil to a greater extent than do other plants. This is significan since rice, often as rice flour, has increased in the standard American diet. Then again, there are other aspects of diet that are related. Rice is a carb and carbs in general have continued rising. Kids today eat more starchy and sugary foods, along with imbing sugary drinks, than any generation before. They also get higher intake of industrial seed oils that are oxidative and mutagenic.

    It would be helpful to look at what else is in most baby food products, besides higher levels of lead. I bet baby food is higer-carb today than what babies were eating 50 years ago and 100 years ago, as the carbs have been steadily going up for all Americans, specifically in prepared foods like baby foods. A high-carb diet has been strongly associated with greater risk of metabolic diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cancer, etc) and neurocognitive conditions (epileptic seizures, depression, Alzheimer’s, etc). And scientific studies have explained many of the causal pathways for these links.

    I’d be curious to see how often industrial seed oils are used in baby food. That is specifically what Catherine Shanahan, a doctor trained in genetics, suspects could be the main cause of the increase of autism. That is because autistic children show hier rates of de novo mutations, that is to say mutations that they didn’t inherit. So, the question is what is causing the mutations? The reality is probably complex. It’s likely to have multiple causes. Industrial seed oils are mutagenic, but so are many other things such as toxins. We have built a society that is mutagenic in diverse ways.

    • Actually, there is much going on with the modern industrialized diet of processed foods. This is as true for baby food as anything else.

      There is the decrease of nutrient-dense wild and pasture-raised animal foods. This is combined with increase of carbs, particularly grains and rice, and an increase of industrial seed oils. But then there are all the accumulation of chemicals. We are surrounded by pollution, toxins, and all kinds of chemicals that gets into our food system, including lead drawn up by plants.

      And in the processing of foods, even more chemicals are added as food preservatives, taste enhancers, etc. One example of this is propionate or propionic acid that also has strong ties to autism. To go back to the animal foods angle, Sally Fallon Morell has made a compelling case for autism maybe being caused by vitamin A deficiency.

      There are many theories and probably many of them hold a piece of the truth. The entire diet and the environment has been dramatically transformed. I discussed the dietary angle in great detail in previous posts:

      • An additional factor might be the heavy farming machinery which are manufactured from all sorts of combinations of metals, I bet the friction with the soil must rub off some minute portions of the iron blades and such into the soil, compare to hand harvesting with clean cut sickles and storage in hay bags whilst transporting locally sourced grains short distances into local markets, today if theres a small contaminated patch of agricultural land somewhere in the world, odds are we are all affected.
        The FDA cannot analyze every grain of rice or baby powder that gets into our bodies, the department of agriculture should coordinate with its counterparts around the world on a global scale for all our sakes.

    • This isn’t all doom and gloom. It’s true we don’t know of any way to reverse damage from long term heavy metal toxicity. And that is problematic. But the body can heal from much, if and when other factors are resolved. Many physical and mental health conditions have been reversed by removing or adding in various things. Some autistics have responded well to lessening the amount of propionate and glutamate.

      In my post about the agricultural mind, I shared the story of the biochemist Dr. Katherine Reid. Her daughter was diagnosed with autism, to such a degree that she didn’t communicate or socialize with other children. Strictly eliminating propionate allowed normal development to kick in. Her daughter began communicating again and was kicked out of the special school because she was too functional and so had to go to a normal school.

      I also talk about Morell’s view. She discusses autistic children who improved behavior with vitamin A supplementation, specifically from nutrient-dense foods. Even if lead toxicity did contribute to the original cause, giving the body the nutrients it needs will allow it to heal and rebuild, even catch up with lost development, as long as it’s caught early enough. So many problems and so much suffering could be lessened. We don’t need to be fatalistic in treating kids as a lost generation.

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