This year, the CDC reported that the rate of autism prevalence is holding steady at 1 in 68 children, however, there is a lot of debate about why autism rates have been rising over the last 20 years. High quality studies being published today link the possibly of a child developing autism with environmental factors, including exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy.
In one such study recently published by the highly respected journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found that children exposed to high levels of PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) while in the womb were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with autism, compared to those with lower levels of exposure – up to 80% more likely. This leaves parents with the question: what is a PCB and how can my family be exposed?
PCBs, Autism and Other Health Dangers
PCBs are man-made chemicals called organochlorines, which just means that they are organic chemicals derived from carbon, hydrogen and chlorine atoms. They can be dangerous to your family’s health and are found in a variety of places. According to EPA reports, potential health dangers, besides this recently discovered link to autism, include:
- Immune dysfunction
- Neurological effects
- Endocrine disruption
- Reproductive problems
- Low birth weight
- Pre-term labor
Children and fetuses are especially susceptible to the dangers of PCBs. The good news is that PCBs were outlawed in the U.S. in 1979. So how are pregnant moms being exposed to them today? Unfortunately, these chemicals can linger in the environment. The EPA states that toxic PCB waste release can come from:
- poorly maintained hazardous waste sites
- leaks in aging systems that use PCBs in parts like transformers
- industrial and municipal burning of PCB waste
- illegal and/or improper dumping of this waste
In fact, some sites have polluted miles and spawned years of litigation. For example, the General Electric Corporation dumped PCBs into the Hudson River in New York through the 1970s, and the state has been trying to recoup the damages done to the land ever since.
And since this new study links PCBs and autism, you need to know how to keep your family safe.
How to Keep Your Family Safe From PCBs
The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry states that PCBs can be found “in almost all outdoor and indoor air, soil, sediments, surface water and animals,” leaving food crop, livestock and game vulnerable to this chemical. Unfortunately, PCBs do not break down quickly and can accumulate in the body in fat cells and in certain organs, like the liver.
So how can you help your family to avoid PCBs? Here are some precautions you can take:
- Because there may still be residue or leaks, everyone should avoid old appliances, electrical equipment and transformers.
- Keep your children away from areas surrounding hazardous wastes sites, especially if they contain dirt.
- Don’t let your children play in areas near locations that have had a transformer fire in the past.
- If you live near a hazardous waste plant, make sure your children wash their hands thoroughly after outdoor play and don’t contact or eat dirt.
- Filter your water using a carbon filter if you suspect PCBs have contaminated your water.
- The most common way to get PCBs in your system is by eating contaminated foods, mostly fish, and particularly game or fish you catch yourself. Pay attention to local and national advisories about contaminated fish or game, some of which is listed on the EPA’s website.
- The FDA recommends also that you eat up to 12 ounces of a variety of shellfish and fish that are lower in mercury, like shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. Keep that in mind as you hear recommendations for fish and PCBs.
- If you are pregnant, also be sure to follow your doctor’s guidelines on what fish is safe and how much you can safely eat. For example, shrimp is low in PCBs, but salmon is not.
- The Mayo Clinic recommends that if you are eating fatty fish like salmon, trim off the fatty areas, remove the skin and drain off any fat by cooking on a rack rather than frying.
- For salmon from stores and restaurants, Physicians for Social Responsibility suggest you limit your intake amounts to:
- Canned Pacific salmon up to twice a week
- Fresh or frozen wild Pacific salmon up to twice a month
- Fresh or frozen farmed Atlantic salmon up to once every 2 months.
- Due to PCB contamination, the Environmental Defense Fund recommends that you:
- Avoid Bluefin tuna, although men can eat ½ serving per month
- Eat rockfish in no more than 2 meals per month
- Eat sole and rainbow trout in no more than 3 meals a months (less for children). Keep sole to 2 meals for kids under 11, and the trout to 2 for kids 5 and under.
- Fish lower down the food chain, like sardines, are safer.
- If you believe that you or your children have been exposed to high levels of PCBs, you can have blood tests to determine if your body contains unsafe levels. Other tests can also detect levels in body fat or breast milk.
PCBs naturally degrade over time if no more of this toxic chemical enters the body. The longest it can take to eliminate from a body naturally is 10-15 years, according to a 2011 study, however, it may be less depending on which PCB, and how potent it is. Low exposure may take only a few years. PCBs and autism may be linked but you can still keep your family safe and lower your child’s risk with common sense measures.