Gestational exposure to chemicals commonly found in cosmetics, perfumes and soaps can give your baby boy (not the girl) autism between ages 3-4, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EPH). However, the risk is almost completely obliterated if women take folic acid supplementation in the first trimester.
Autism, a broad range disorder of intellectual disability and compromised social skills, affects all races and ethnicities. However, boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with it. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 37 boys is born with autism. Although the disorder can be diagnosed as early as age 2, most children are diagnosed at age 4 or later.
“Very few studies looked at autism and its associated traits, with inconsistent findings. We tried to look at this question in a large sample from a Canadian cohort that was designed specifically to look at potential developmental effects of exposure to environmental chemicals,” says Youssef Oulhote, lead author and Assistant Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences.
The researchers recruited 2001 Canadian pregnant women who were in the first trimester of pregnancy. All women were healthy and part of a large pregnancy study [Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC)] conducted between 2008-2011.
All women were monitored throughout the pregnancy and after delivery through medical charts, questionnaires and blood and urine samples. Researchers measured concentrations of 11 phthalates in the urine sample in the first trimester. Further, they screened 610 children born to most of the women members of the study between ages 3 and 4 using Social Responsiveness Scale-2 (SRS-2). SRS-2 measures autism traits and neuropsychological impairments in patients. The higher the score, the more the chances of the disorder are.
The findings were predictable, the more the mother’s urine contained phthalates, the more the child scored at the SRS-2 scale. However, children whose mothers took folic acid during the first trimester were perfectly healthy and did not show autism traits on the scale.
This is the first study to prove that folic acid supplementation can prevent side effects of toxic chemicals including phthalates. There have been dozens of studies highlighting the hazards of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) present all around us but none has so far investigated the protective effect of folic acid in curbing the threat. Oulhote believes that something as simple as folic acid might be our best defense against neural tube disorders and autism in children, particularly boys, who are at a higher risk for reasons unknown to science.
Folic acid is a type of B vitamin that prevents birth defects. Its deficiency can cause irreversible brain and spinal cord damage (neural tube defects) in the babies. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends a daily intake of 400 mcg of folic acid in all women of reproductive age in addition to iron-rich food (eggs, leafy greens, citrus fruits). In the first trimester, the dose of folic acid should be upped to 4,000 mcg.
Additionally, expectant mothers should take steps to avoid excessive exposure to phthalates and other toxic chemicals found abundantly in cosmetics, cleaning products and plastics. Phthalates mimic natural hormones in the body (estrogen) and trigger many disorders in both the mother as well as the baby, including polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, heart disease, and motor nerve disease.