Utah’s Startling Autism Rates

A new study released March 29, 2012 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports boys born in Utah have a 1 in 32 chance of being autistic, the highest risk in the nation. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined by the Autism Society Of America as: “A complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.” According to CDC data, boys born in Utah are almost three times as likely to have ASD than Utah-born girls, who have a risk factor of one in 85. Larry Shumway, Utah’s superintendent of public instruction, is anticipating an increase in autistic children throughout the state’s schools.

“They’ll be found in every classroom,” he said, adding that teachers will need to acquire new skills to adapt to the epidemic.

On a national level, the CDC estimates 1 in 88 children have ASD, a 23% increase from their last report in 2009 and a 78% increase from their first report in 2007. They add that ASDs are approximately 5 times more common among boys (1 in 54) than among girls (1 in 252) and families with ASD medical expenditures exceed those without an ASD by an average of $4,110–$6,200 per year. In 2005, the average annual medical costs for Medicaid-enrolled children with an ASD were $10,709 per child.

Though the CDC lists the cause of ASD as unknown, the disorder has been linked to epigenetics, which refers to environmental influences on the genes. According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, pregnant women and their children are currently exposed to over 85,000 chemicals — 100 times more than 50 years ago. A 2005 Environmental Working Group (EWG) study revealed a range of 154 to 231 industrial chemicals and pollutants, including mercury, flame retardants and pesticides, in umbilical cord blood samples from 10 babies born in U.S. hospitals. ASD children and their mothers have been shown to have a deficiency of the antioxidant glutathione, the body’s primary means of detoxifying heavy metals like mercury. Boys with ASD have very high testosterone levels and testosterone has been shown to block glutathione production.

“These stunning new figures are a call to action among our elected leaders to minimize our children’s exposures to mercury and other toxic chemicals,” said EWG President Ken Cook.

Environmental exposures can be paralleled to Utah’s startling autism rates. For one, the state’s Great Salt Lake has the highest concentration of mercury of any water body in the United States, according to the U.S Geological Survey. Utah also has the nation’s highest antidepressant use and, at times, the nation’s worst air pollution.

Advocacy group Autism Speaks is embarking on a national call for action that demands funding toward more basic science uncovering the genetic underpinnings of autism, more environmental research detecting the causes of autism, development of effective medicines and treatments and a strategy through which children with ASD are diagnosed at no later than 18 months of age.

“We are dealing with a national emergency that is in need of a national strategy,” said Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks. “At 1 in 88, we now have over 1 million children directly affected by autism. According to a newly released study the annual cost of autism in the United States is a staggering $126 billion annually, more than tripling the cost analysis from six years ago. Behind all these statistics are real families, real individuals struggling each and every day.”

If passed, the Safe Chemicals Act will aid in combating the hazardous exposures tied to ASD by promoting the use of safer alternatives to today’s chemicals.

“Autism already takes an enormous toll on American families, so it is bad news indeed that it is getting worse,” said Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. “As evidence accumulates that unregulated chemicals contribute substantially to autism, chemical policy reform becomes even more of a moral imperative. This spring, the U.S. Senate can help alleviate the problem by passing the Safe Chemicals Act, which would for the first time create an orderly process for identifying the chemicals that contribute to conditions like autism and apply appropriate restrictions.”