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.

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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.

Lead Toxicity is a Hyperobject

What is everywhere cannot be seen. What harms everyone cannot be acknowledged. So, we obsess over what is trivial and distract ourselves with false narratives. The point isn’t to understand, much less solve, problems. We’d rather large numbers of people to suffer and die, as long as we don’t have to face the overwhelming sense of anxiety about the world we’ve created.

We pretend to care about public health. We obsess over pharmaceuticals and extreme medical interventions while pandering about exercise and diet, not to mention going on about saving the planet while only taking symbolic actions. But some of the worst dangers to public health go with little mention or media reporting. Lead toxicity is an example of this. It causes numerous diseases and health conditions: lowered IQ, ADHD, aggressive behavior, asthma, and on and on. Now we know it also causes heart disease. Apparently, it even immensely contributes to diabetes. A common explanation might be that heavy metals interfere with important systems in the body such as the immune system and hormone system. In the comments section of Dr. Malcolm Kendrick’s post shared below, I noticed this interesting piece of info:

“I recently listened to a presentation, as a part of a class I’m taking, put on by the lead researcher for the TACT trial. He is a cardiologist himself. I would say that a 48% ABSOLUTE risk reduction in further events in diabetic patients, and a 30-something % risk reduction in patients without diabetes, is extremely significant. I went and read the study afterward to verify the numbers he presented. I would say, based on the fact that he admitted freely he thought he was going to prove exactly the opposite, and that his numbers and his statements show it does work, are pretty convincing. Naturally, no one that works for JAMA will ever tell you that. They would prefer to do acrobatics with statistics to prove otherwise.”

Lead toxicity is one of the leading causes of disease and death in the world. It damages the entire body, especially the brain. For the survivors of lead toxicity, they are crippled for life. It was also behind the violent crime wave of paste decades. The prison population has higher than average rates of lead toxicity, which means we are using prisons to store and hide the victims and scapegoat them all in one fell swoop. And since it is the poor who are primarily targeted by our systematic indifference (maybe not indifference, since there are profits and privileges incentivizing it), it is they who are disproportionately poisoned by lead and then, as victims, imprisoned or otherwise caught up in the legal system or institutionalized or left as one of the vast multitudes of forgotten, of the homeless, of those who die without anyone bothering to find out what killed them.

But if only the poor worked harder, got an education, followed the USDA-recommended diet, and got a good job to pay for all the pills pushed on them by the pharmaceutical-funded doctors, then… well, then what the fuck would good would it do them? Tell me that. The irony is that, as we like to pity the poor for their supposed failures and bad luck, we are all being screwed over. It’s just we feel slightly better, slightly less anxious as long as others are doing worse than us. Who cares that we live in a society slowly killing us. The real victory is knowing that it is killing you slightly slower than your neighbor or those other people elsewhere. For some odd reason, most people find that comforting.

It’s sad. Despite making some minor progress in cleaning up the worst of it, the decades of lead accumulation still lingers in the soil, oceans, infrastructure, and old buildings. Entire communities continue to raise new generations with lead exposure. On top of that, we’ve been adding even more pollutants and toxins to the environment, to our food supply, and to every variety of product we buy. I will say this. Even if diet doesn’t have as big of a direct affect on some of these conditions as does removing dangerous toxins, diet has the advantage of being a factor one can personally control. If you eat an optimally healthy diet, especially if you can avoid foods that are poisoned (either unintentionally with environmental toxins or intentionally with farm chemicals), you’ll be doing yourself a world of good. Greater health won’t eliminate all of the dangers we are surrounded by, but it will help you to detoxify and heal from the damage. It may not be much  in the big picture, but it’s better than nothing.

On the other hand, even if our diet obsession is overblown, maybe it’s more significant than we realize. Sammy Pepys, in Fat is our Friend, writes about Roseto, Pennsylvania. Scientists studying this uniquely healthy American community called the phenomenon the Roseto Effect. These people ate tons of processed meat and lard, smoked cigars and drink wine, and they worked back-breaking labor in quarries where they would have been exposed to toxins (“Rosetan men worked in such toxic environments as the nearby slate quarries … inhaling gases, dusts and other niceties.” p. 117). Yet their health was great. At the time, diet was dismissed because it didn’t conform to USDA standards. While most Americans had already switched to industrial seed oils, the Rosetans were still going strong on animal fats. Maybe their diet was dismissed too easily. As with earlier lard-and-butter-gorging Americans, maybe all the high quality animal fats (probably from pasture-raised animals) was essential to avoiding disease. Also, maybe it had something to do with their ability to handle the toxins as well. Considering Weston A. Price’s research, it’s obvious that all of those additional fat-soluble vitamins sure would have helped.

Still, let’s clean up the toxins. And also, let’s quit polluting like there is no tomorrow.

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What causes heart disease part 65 – Lead again
by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick

There are several things about the paper that I found fascinating. However, the first thing that I noticed was that…. it hadn’t been noticed. It slipped by in a virtual media blackout. It was published in 2018, and I heard nothing.

This is in direct contrast to almost anything published about diet. We are literally bombarded with stories about red meat causing cancer and sausages causing cancer and heart disease, and veganism being protective against heart disease and cancer, and on and on. Dietary articles often end up on the front page on national newspapers. […]

Where was I? Oh yes, lead. The heavy metal. The thing that, unlike diet, makes no headlines whatsoever, the thing that everyone ignores. Here is one top-line fact from that study on lead, that I missed:

‘Our findings suggest that, of 2·3 million deaths every year in the USA, about 400 000 are attributable to lead exposure, an estimate that is about ten times larger than the current one.’ 1

Yes, according to this study, one in six deaths is due to lead exposure. I shall repeat that. One in six. Eighteen per cent to be exact, which is nearer a fifth really. […]

So, on one side, we have papers (that make headlines around the world) shouting about the risk of red meat and cancer. Yet the association is observational, tiny, and would almost certainly disappear in a randomised controlled trial, and thus mean nothing.

On the other we have a substance that could be responsible for one sixth of all deaths, the vast majority of those CVD deaths. The odds ratio, highest vs lowest lead exposure, by the way, depending on age and other factors, was a maximum of 5.30 [unadjusted].

Another study in the US found the following

‘Cumulative lead exposure, as reflected by bone lead, and cardiovascular events have been studied in the Veterans’ Normative Aging Study, a longitudinal study among community-based male veterans in the greater Boston area enrolled in 1963. Patients had a single measurement of tibial and patellar bone lead between 1991 and 1999. The HR for ischemic heart disease mortality comparing patellar lead >35 to <22 μg/g was 8.37 (95% CI: 1.29 to 54.4).’ 3

HR = Hazard Ratio, which is similar, if not the same to OR = Odds Ratio. A Hazard Ratio of 8.37, means (essentially) a 737% increase in risk (Relative Risk).

Anyway, I shall repeat that finding a bit more loudly. A higher level of lead in the body leads to a seven hundred and thirty-seven per cent increase in death from heart disease. This is, in my opinion, correlation proving causation.

Looking at this from another angle, it is true that smoking causes a much greater risk of lung cancer (and a lesser but significant increase in CVD), but not everyone smokes. Therefore, the overall damage to health from smoking is far less than the damage caused by lead toxicity.

Yet no-one seems remotely interested. Which is, in itself, very interesting.

It is true that most Governments have made efforts to reduce lead exposure. Levels of lead in the children dropped five-fold between the mid-sixties and the late nineties. 4 Indeed, once the oil industry stopped blowing six hundred thousand tons of lead into the atmosphere from vehicle exhausts things further improved. Lead has also been removed from water pipes, paint, and suchlike.

However, it takes a long old time from lead to be removed from the human body. It usually lingers for a lifetime. Equally, trying to get rid of lead is not easy, that’s for sure. Having said this, chelation therapy has been tried, and does seem to work.

‘On November 4, 2012, the TACT (Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy) investigators reported publicly the first large, randomized, placebo-controlled trial evidence that edetate disodium (disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) chelation therapy significantly reduced cardiac events in stable post–myocardial infarction (MI) patients. These results were so unexpected that many in the cardiology community greeted the report initially with either skepticism (it is probably wrong) or outright disbelief (it is definitely wrong).’ 3

Cardiologists, it seems from the above quotes, know almost nothing about the subject in which they claim to be experts. Just try mentioning glycocalyx to them… ‘the what?’

Apart from a few brave souls battling to remove lead from the body, widely derided and dismissed by the mainstream world of cardiology, nothing else is done. Nothing at all. We spend trillions on cholesterol lowering, and trillions on blood pressure lowering, and more trillions on diet. On the other hand, we do nothing active to try and change a risk factor that kicks all the others – in terms of numbers killed – into touch.