Autism Risk Higher Near Pesticide-Treated Fields, Study Says
The study of 970 children, born in farm-rich areas of Northern California, is part of the largest project to date that is exploring links between autism and environmental exposures.
The University of California, Davis research—which used women’s addresses to determine their proximity to insecticide-treated fields—is the third project to link prenatal insecticide exposures to autism and related disorders.
“The weight of evidence is beginning to suggest that mothers’ exposures during pregnancy may play a role in the development of autism spectrum disorders,” said Kim Harley, associate director of University of California, Berkeley's Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health. She was not involved in the new study.
One in every 68 U.S. children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder—a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by difficulties with social interactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This study does not show that pesticides are likely to cause autism, though it suggests that exposure to farming chemicals during pregnancy is probably not a good thing,” said Dr. Bennett Leventhal, a child psychiatrist at University of California, San Francisco who studies autistic children. He did not participate in the study.
The biggest known contributor to autism risk is having a family member with it. Siblings of a child with autism are 35 times more likely to develop it than those without an autistic brother or sister, according to the National Institutes of Health.
By comparison, in the new study, children with mothers who lived less than one mile from fields treated with organophosphate pesticides during pregnancy were about 60 percent more likely to have autism than children whose mothers did not live close to treated fields. Most of the women lived in the Sacramento Valley.
When women in the second trimester lived near fields treated with chlorpyrifos – the most commonly applied organophosphate pesticide—their children were 3.3 times more likely to have autism, according to the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Chlorpyrifos, once widely used to kill insects in homes and gardens, was banned for residential use in 2001 after it was linked to neurological effects in children. It is still widely used on crops, including nut trees, alfalfa, vegetables and fruits.
The study also is the first to report a link between pyrethroids and autism. Application of pyrethroids just prior to conception meant an increased risk of 82 percent, and during the third trimester, the risk was 87 percent higher.
That finding is particularly concerning because “pyrethroids were supposed to be better, safer alternatives to organophosphates,” said the study’s senior author, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist who leads the UC-Davis project to investigate environmental and genetic links to autism.
Use of pyrethroids has increased in recent years, both on farms and in the home, due to bans of other insecticides. Some studies now suggest pyrethroids may carry risks for developing fetuses.
The autism risk that could be attributed to an individual pesticide is likely slight, said Alycia Halladay, senior director for environmental and clinical sciences at the nonprofit Autism Speaks. “We need to understand how multiple exposures interact with each other and with genetics to understand all that is involved in the causes of autism,” she said.
But while the risks reported in the study pale in comparison to some hereditary factors, Hertz-Picciotto said they are comparable to other risks for autism, such as advanced parental age or not taking prenatal vitamins.
“In any child who develops autism, a combination of genetic and environmental factors are at work. There’s an accumulation of insults to the system. What we’re seeing is that pesticides may be one more factor that for some kids may push them over the edge,” she said.
For the study, researchers obtained the women’s addresses and compared them to a state database that provides details about where, when and how often specific commercial pesticides were used. About one-third of the women lived within approximately one mile of pesticide-treated fields.
The researchers, however, do not know whether the women were exposed to the insecticides.
“Provided that pesticides are applied responsibly and according to federally mandated label instructions, people, including expectant mothers, should not be concerned about exposure to agricultural pesticides,” said Clare Thorpe, senior director of human health policy for CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers.
More than 1.1 million tons of chlorpyrifos were applied to 22,000 California farms in 2012, down from 2 million pounds on 40,000 farms in 2005, according to the database from the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.
Most of the mothers lived near fields treated with several different pesticides over their pregnancies, so it’s difficult to tease apart the potential risk of individual chemicals, said epidemiologist Janie Shelton, the lead study author. Shelton is now a consulting scientist to the United Nations.
The study also reported an increased risk of developmental delays, but not autism, in kids whose moms lived near fields where carbamates, including methomyl and Sevin, were applied.
The researchers said that pesticides could impair brain development and signaling in a way that affects social interactions, learning and behavior.
Previous studies have also linked pesticide use in California to autism spectrum disorders. In 2007, Harley and colleagues found a two-fold increase in pervasive developmental disorders (the larger group to which autism belongs) among 531 children in California’s Salinas Valley whose mothers’ urine had higher levels of organophosphate pesticides. Another study from 2007 found that mothers who lived near fields with the highest applications of two now-banned pesticides—endosulfan and dicofol—were six times more likely to have kids with autism spectrum disorders.
In recent years, rates of autism have been on the rise in the U.S. Between 2012 and 2014 alone, rates jumped 30 percent. The increase has largely been attributed to changes in diagnostic criteria for autism.
“Many children that we used to call intellectually disabled and many more with social deficits are now recognized as being on the autism spectrum,” said Kathy Katz, a pediatric psychologist at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC.
But some experts suggest that environmental exposures may also be contributing to the climbing rates. In California alone, autism diagnoses were up 600 percent between 1990 and 2001. Yet researchers found that only about one-third of the rise could be explained by changing diagnoses or kids being diagnosed at increasingly younger ages.
Earlier this year, scientists examining more than two million births in Sweden reported that inherited genes make up about 50 percent of a child’s autism risk, while environmental factors make up the other half.
It’s tempting to tie the increase in prevalence to environmental factors, said Halladay, but it’s hard to know for sure what’s going on, since some environmental risks have increased over the past few decades while others have decreased.
“Use of pesticides has gone up, so has autism. But air quality has also improved, and we know that air pollution plays a role in autism spectrum disorder risk,” she said.
Some studies are starting to look how environmental exposures may act differently in people whose genetics make them more susceptible. Earlier this year, researchers showed that people with a gene variant associated with autism and high exposure to air pollution had an increased risk of autism over people with the same gene variant but lower exposure to air pollution.
Next, Shelton hopes to look for autism risk from pesticide exposure among mothers with certain genetic variations.
“We need to know if some moms are at higher risk than others and what that risk is. Knowing who is most vulnerable is key to understanding how to better protect them,” she said.
By Deborah Moore, Michael Simon and Darryl Knudsen
There's some good news amidst the grim global pandemic: At long last, the world's largest dam removal is finally happening.
A young activist for a free-flowing Salween River. A team of campaigners and lawyers from EarthRights International joined Indigenous Karen communities on the Salween in 2018 to celebrate the International Day of Actions for Rivers on March 14. This year, EarthRights joined communities living in the Eu-Wae-Tta internally displaced persons camp for a celebration in solidarity with those impacted by dam projects on the Salween River. EarthRights International<p>The dam removal project is a sign of the decline of the hydropower industry, whose fortunes have fallen as the <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46098118" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">troubling</a> cost-benefit ratio of dams has become clear over the years. The rise of more cost-effective and sustainable energy sources (including wind and solar) has hastened this shift. This is exactly the type of progress envisioned by the <a href="https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/17023836/dams-and-development-a-new-framework-for-decision" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">World Commission on Dams</a> (WCD), a global multi-stakeholder body that was established by the World Bank and International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1998 to investigate the effectiveness and performance of large dams around the world. The WCD released a damning landmark <a href="https://www.un.org/press/en/2000/20001117.dam.pressconferencepm.doc.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> in November 2000 on the enormous financial, environmental and human costs and the dismal performance of large dams. The commission spent <a href="https://www.un.org/press/en/2000/20001117.dam.pressconferencepm.doc.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">two years</a> analyzing the outcome of the trillions of dollars invested in dams, reviewing dozens of case studies and testimonies from over a thousand communities and individuals, before producing the report.</p><p>But despite this progress, we cannot take hydropower's decline as inevitable. As governments around the world plan for a post-pandemic recovery, hydropower companies sense an opportunity. The industry is eager to recast itself as climate-friendly (<a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/how-green-is-hydropower-1919539525.html" target="_self">it's not</a>) and <a href="https://www.hydropower.org/covid-19" target="_blank">secure</a> precious stimulus funds to revive its dying industry — at the expense of people, the environment and a truly just, green recovery.</p>
Hydropower’s Troubling Record<p>The world's largest hydropower dam removal project on the Klamath River is a significant win for tribal communities. But while the Yurok and Karuk tribes <a href="https://www.karuk.us/images/docs/press/bring_salmon_home.php" target="_blank">suffered</a> terribly from the decline of the Klamath's fisheries, they were by no means alone in that experience. The environmental catastrophe that occurred along the Klamath River has been replicated all over the world since the global boom in hydropower construction <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/hydropower" target="_blank">began</a> early in the 20th century.</p><p>The rush to dam rivers has had huge consequences. After decades of rampant construction, only <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/05/worlds-free-flowing-rivers-mapped-hydropower/" target="_blank">37 percent of the world's rivers remain free-flowing</a>, according to <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1111-9" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one study</a>. River fragmentation has <a href="https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/4/330/5732594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">decimated freshwater habitats and fish stocks</a>, threatening food security for millions of the world's most vulnerable people, and hastening the <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffopperman/2020/10/13/freshwater-wildlife-continues-to-decline-but-new-energy-trendlines-suggest-we-can-bend-that-curve/?sh=f9d175a61ee4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">decline of other myriad freshwater species</a>, including mammals, birds and reptiles.</p><p>The communities that experienced the most harm from dams — whether in Asia, Latin America or Africa — often lacked political power and access. But that didn't stop grassroots movements from organizing and growing to fight for their rights and livelihoods. The people affected by dams began raising their voices, sharing their experiences and forging alliances across borders. By the 1990s, the public <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y55lnlst" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">outcry</a> against large dams had grown so loud that it finally led to the establishment of the WCD.</p><p>What the WCD found was stunning. While large dam projects had brought some economic benefits, they had also <a href="https://www.irn.org/wcd/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">forcibly displaced an estimated 40 to 80 million people in the 20th century alone</a>. To put that number into perspective, it is more than the current population of present-day <a href="https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=FR" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">France</a> or the <a href="https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=GB" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Kingdom</a>. These people lost their lands and homes to dams, and often with no compensation.</p><p>Subsequent research has compounded that finding. A paper published in <a href="https://tinyurl.com/c7uznz" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Water Alternatives</a> revealed that globally, more than <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yxw8x7ab" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">470 million people living downstream from large dams</a> have faced significant impacts to their lives and livelihoods — much of it due to disruptions in water supply, which in turn harm the complex web of life that depends on healthy, free-flowing rivers. The WCD's findings, released in 2000, <a href="https://www.irn.org/wcd/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">identified</a> the importance of restoring rivers, compensating communities for their losses, and finding better energy alternatives to save rivers and ecosystems.</p>
Facing a New Crisis<p>Twenty years after the WCD uncovered a crisis along the world's rivers and recommended a new development path — one that advances community-driven development and protects freshwater resources — we find ourselves in the midst of another crisis. The global pandemic has hit us hard, with surging loss of life, unemployment and instability.</p><p>But as governments work to rebuild economies and create job opportunities in the coming years, we have a choice: Double down on the failed, outdated technologies that have harmed so many, or change course and use this transformative moment to rebuild our natural systems and uplift communities.</p><p>There are many reasons to fight for a green recovery. The climate is changing even <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07586-5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">faster</a> than expected, and some dams — especially those with reservoirs in hot climates — <a href="https://tinyurl.com/w6w29t8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">have been found to emit more greenhouse gases than a fossil fuel power plant</a>. Other estimates have put global reservoirs' human-made greenhouse gas emissions each year on par with <a href="https://www.climatecentral.org/news/greenhouse-gases-reservoirs-fuel-climate-change-20745" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Canada's</a> total emissions.</p><p>Meanwhile, we now understand that healthy rivers and freshwater ecosystems play a <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/b55b1fe4-7d09-47af-96c4-6cbb5f106d4f/files/wetlands-role-carbon-cycle.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">critical role in regulating and storing carbon</a>. And at a time when <a href="https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodiversity loss is soaring</a>, anything we can do to <a href="https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/4/330/5732594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">restore habitat is key</a>. But with <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271996520_A_Global_Boom_in_Hydropower_dam_Construction" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">more than 3,700 major dams proposed or under construction</a> in the world (primarily in the Global South, with over <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2020/08/more-than-500-dams-planned-inside-protected-areas-study/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">500 of these in protected areas</a>), according to a 2014 report — and the hydropower industry <a href="https://www.hydropower.org/covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">jockeying</a> for scarce stimulus dollars — we must act urgently.</p>
Signs of Hope<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcxMzUyMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTcyNTc3OX0.EbqBVPs2kjhrY5AqnZXOb_GX-s6pw4qyJmmeISzKA6U/img.png?width=980" id="a81d0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87bc79d69f72e9334a78da8e0355e6ae" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1620" data-height="1068" />
Fish catch at the Siphandone on the Mekong River, prior to the completion of the Don Sahong Dam. Pai Deetes / International Rivers<p>So what would a strong, resilient and equitable recovery look like in the 21st century? Let's consider one example in Southeast Asia.</p><p>Running through six countries, the Mekong River is the world's 12th-longest river, which is home to one of the world's most biodiverse regions, and includes the world's <a href="https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/greater-mekong#" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest</a> inland fishery. Around <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y6jrarjo" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">80 percent of the nearly 65 million people</a> who live in the Lower Mekong River Basin depend on the river for their livelihoods, according to the Mekong River Commission. In 1994, Thailand built the Pak Mun Dam on a Mekong tributary. <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y5ekfp4h" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Six years later</a>, the <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yxcvs6up" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">WCD studied the dam's performance</a> and submitted its conclusions and recommendations as part of its final report in 2000. According to the WCD report, the Pak Mun Dam did not deliver the peaking energy service it was designed for, and it <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y38p3jaw" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically blocked a critical migration route</a> for a range of fish species that migrated annually to breeding grounds upstream in the Mun River Basin. Cut off from their customary habitat, fish stocks plummeted, and so did the livelihoods of the local people.</p><p>Neighboring Laos, instead of learning from this debacle, followed in Thailand's footsteps, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y4eaxcq2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">constructing two dams on the river's mainstem</a>, Xayaburi Dam, commissioned in 2019, and Don Sahong Dam, commissioned in 2020. But then a sign of hope appeared. In early 2020, just as the pandemic began to spread across the world, the <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/20/cambodia-scraps-plans-for-mekong-hydropower-dams" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cambodian government reconsidered its plans to build more dams on the Mekong</a>. The science was indisputable: A government-commissioned report showed that further dams would <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/16/leaked-report-warns-cambodias-biggest-dam-could-literally-kill-mekong-river" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce the river's wild fisheries, threaten critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins</a> and <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2013WR014651" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">block nutrient-rich sediment from the delta's fertile agricultural lands</a>.</p><p><a href="https://data.opendevelopmentmekong.net/dataset/4f1bb5fd-a564-4d37-878b-c288af460143/resource/5f6fe360-7a68-480d-9ba4-12d7b8b805c9/download/volume-3_solar-alternative-to-sambor-dam.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Studies</a> show that Cambodia didn't need to seek billions of dollars in loans to build more hydropower; instead, it could pursue more cost-effective solar and wind projects that would deliver needed electricity at a fraction of the cost — and <a href="https://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/wwf-statement-on-cambodian-government-s-decision-to-suspend-hydropower-dam-development-on-the-mekong-river" target="_blank">without the ecological disasters to fisheries and the verdant Mekong delta</a>. And, in a stunning reversal, Cambodia listened to the science — and to the people — and <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/20/cambodia-scraps-plans-for-mekong-hydropower-dams" target="_blank">announced</a> a 10-year moratorium on mainstream dams. Cambodia is now <a href="https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/cambodia-halts-hydropower-construction-mekong-river-until-2030" target="_blank">reconsidering</a> its energy mix, recognizing that mainstream hydropower dams are too costly and undermine the economic and cultural values of its flagship river.</p>
Toward a Green Recovery<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcxMzUwOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTMwMjk0M30.0LZCOEVzgtgjm2_7CwcbFfuZlrtUr80DiRYxqKGaKIg/img.jpg?width=980" id="87fe9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e6b9bfeb013516f6ad5033bb9e03c5ec" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2100" data-height="3086" />
Klamath River Rapids. Tupper Ansel Blake / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service<p>Increasingly, governments, civil servants and the public at large are rethinking how we produce energy and are seeking to preserve and restore precious freshwater resources. Dam removals are increasing exponentially across <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/DamsRemoved_1999-2019.pdf" target="_blank">North America</a> and <a href="https://damremoval.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/DRE-policy-Report-2018-digitaal-010319.pdf" target="_blank">Europe</a>, and movements advancing <a href="https://www.rightsofrivers.org/" target="_blank">permanent river protection are growing across Latin America, Asia and Africa</a>.</p><p>We must use the COVID-19 crisis to accelerate the trend. Rather than relying on old destructive technologies and industry claims of newfound "<a href="https://www.hydrosustainability.org/news/2020/11/12/consultation-on-a-groundbreaking-global-sustainability-standard-for-hydropower" target="_blank">sustainable hydropower</a>," the world requires a new paradigm for an economic recovery that is rooted both in climate and economic justice as well as river stewardship. Since December 2020, hundreds of groups and individuals from more than 80 countries have joined the <a href="https://www.rivers4recovery.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Rivers4Recovery</a> call for a better way forward for rivers and natural places. This paradigm will protect our rivers as critical lifelines — supporting fisheries, biodiversity, water supply, food production, Indigenous peoples and diverse populations around the world — rather than damming and polluting them.</p><p>The promise of the Klamath dam removals is one of restoration — a move that finally recognizes the immense value of free-flowing rivers and the key role they play in <a href="https://f.hubspotusercontent20.net/hubfs/4783129/LPR/PDFs/Living_Planet_Report_Freshwater_Deepdive.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">nourishing both the world's biodiversity and hundreds of millions of people</a>. Healthy rivers — connected to watershed forests, floodplains, wetlands and deltas — are key partners in building resilience in the face of an accelerating climate crisis. But if we allow the hydropower industry to succeed in its <a href="https://www.world-energy.org/article/12361.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cynical grab for stimulus funds</a>, we'll only perpetuate the 20th century's legacy of suffering and environmental degradation.</p><p>We must put our money where our values are. Twenty years ago, the WCD pointed the way forward to a model of development that takes humans, wildlife and the environment into account, and in 2020, we saw that vision flower along the Klamath River. It's time to bring that promise of healing and restoration to more of the world's rivers.</p><p><em>Deborah Moore is a former commissioner of the <a href="https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol3/v3issue2/79-a3-2-2/file" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">World Commission on Dams</a>. Michael Simon was a member of the <a href="https://www.hydrosustainability.org/assessment-protocol" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum</a>. Darryl Knudsen is the executive director of <a href="https://www.internationalrivers.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">International Rivers</a>.</em></p><p><em>This article first appeared on <a href="https://truthout.org/articles/damming-rivers-is-terrible-for-human-rights-ecosystems-and-food-security/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Truthout</a> and was produced in partnership with <a href="https://independentmediainstitute.org/earth-food-life/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Earth | Food | Life</a>, a project of the Independent Media Institute.</em></p>
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