A new study indicates pharmaceuticals that find their way into the water supply may contribute to increased rates of autism in children.
A team of Idaho researchers exposed small fish called fathead minnows to psychoactive medications, including the antidepressants Prozac and Effexor, and an epileptic medication called Tegretol. Researchers then examined the brain tissue of the fish after exposing some to the individual pharmaceuticals, and others to a mixture of all three.
Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the nation; more children will be diagnosed with it this year than with AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined.
The use of antidepressants by pregnant women has been associated with autism. Therefore, the researchers were looking for an environmental trigger that would link pharmaceuticals to the development of idiopathic autism.
“Idiopathic autism seems to be triggered by something,” says Dr. Michael Thomas, associate professor of biological sciences at Idaho State University and lead scientist of the study. “We know that those markers to genetic susceptibility are interacting with something, and we suppose that it’s interacting with some sort of environmental trigger.”
Idiopathic autism refers to a type of autism exhibited when no specific underlying cause can be determined.
The results of the study reveal that the administered dosages altered the genetic pathways of the minnows. The altered pathways are the same as the genetic pathways associated with those of idiopathic autism spectrum disorders in humans.
While there are a host of environmental triggers that could cause idiopathic autism, research has not been able to conclusively identify any.
“No one says anything about pharmaceuticals,” says Dr. Thomas. “We don’t really know how much is in our drinking water.”
“Even though we’ve looked at relatively high concentrations—our concentrations were substantially higher than what you actually see in drinking water—those concentrations are many times lower, like orders of magnitude lower, than concentrations that people think would ever stimulate gene expression patterns in fish or humans.”
The findings of this study are startling, because it found effects from concentrations so low they were previously considered insignificant.
“We were looking at concentrations that were similar to half of a teaspoon in an Olympic-sized pool,” says Thomas. “That’s pretty dilute. Everyone who has ever considered this has totally dismissed that concentration as ever being something that would be of interest or concern,” says Dr. Thomas.
“Our next experiment will be scaling those concentrations down so that they’re actually concentrations that we see in drinking water,” he said.
Diluted or not, the study reveals that idiopathic autism could in fact be linked to the trace amounts of pharmaceuticals that find their way into water supplies.
According to Autism Speaks, the largest autism science and advocacy organization in the United States, autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the nation, and more children will be diagnosed with it this year than with AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined.
As more and more individuals are diagnosed with autism, dependable research is crucial in taking the next step toward a better understanding of the disorder. However, the question remains: Where do we go from here?
“The answer is: It’s not possible to know right now. We need a lot more work, and what we think we’ve done right now is we’ve given people a reason to do that work. But we’ve kind of opened a door to that question that people hadn’t considered before,” says Thomas.
A few at the federal level have considered the implications of pharmaceuticals leaking into the water supply, although little progress has been made toward prevention.
Last fall, a bill was introduced to Congress to create a nonprofit called the Pharmaceutical Stewardship Organization, to develop a nationwide program for regulating the disposal of medicines. The organization, whose members would be appointed by the EPA, would also be responsible for preventing the entry of drugs into the nation’s water supply.
Under the bill, pharmaceutical companies would provide funding for the program. The bill, however, has stalled in Congress.
In the meantime, researchers say there’s more work to be done in understanding autism.
“Well, we’re getting closer every day. There’s a whole world of potential triggers out there and people often just don’t know where to start,” says Dr. Thomas. “That’s why we think it’s valuable that we’ve provided a potential new question.”
But Dr. Thomas cautions that his research is only a stepping stone toward developing more conclusive evidence regarding the causes of idiopathic autism.
“We’re not saying anything definitive yet; at the same time, it’s potentially interesting,” he says. “This is the beginning of new evidence for a new question that people haven’t thought to ask before.”
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