Skip to content Skip to footer

The Autism Epidemic and Disappearing Bees: A Common Denominator?

An autistic child. (Photo: Cindy Seigle / Flickr)

Support Truthout’s work by making a tax-deductible donation: click here to contribute.

On a recent front page of The Salt Lake Tribune, a frightening, oversized headline read, “Highest rate in the nation, 1 in 32 Utah boys has autism.” Less well publicized, another national story ran the same day: “New pesticides linked to bee population collapse.” If you eat food and hope to do so a few years from now, this should be equally frightening. A common denominator may underlie both stories.

A recent Stanford University study, examining 192 pairs of twins, where one twin was autistic and one was not, found that genetics account for 38 percent of the risk of autism and environmental factors account for 62 percent.(1)

Suggesting an environmental and genetic tag team are other studies showing mothers of autistic children and autistic children themselves have a high rate of a genetic deficiency in the production of glutathione, an antioxidant and the body’s primary means of detoxifying heavy metals.(2) High levels of toxic metals in children are strongly correlated with the severity of autism.(3) Low levels of glutathione, coupled with high production of another chemical, homocysteine, increase the chance of a mother having an autistic child to one in three, according to Dr. Jim Adams, director of Arizona State University’s Autism/Asperger’s Research Program. That autism is four times more common among boys than girls is likely related to a defect in the single male X chromosome contributing to antioxidant deficiency. There is no such thing as a genetic disease epidemic because genes don’t change that quickly. So, the alarming rise in autism must be the result of increased environmental exposures that exploit these genetic defects.

During the critical first three months of gestation, a human embryo adds 250,000 brain cells per minute, reaching 200 billion by the fifth month. There is no chemical elixir that improves this biological miracle, but thousands of toxic substances can cross the placenta and impair that process, leaving brain cells stressed, inflamed, less well developed, fewer in number and with fewer anatomic connections with each other, all of which diminish brain function. The opportunity to make up for the resulting deficits later on is limited.

The list of autism’s environmental suspects is long and comes from many different studies that show higher rates of autism with greater exposure to flame retardants, plasticizers like BPA, pesticides, endocrine disruptors in personal care products, heavy metals in air pollution, mercury and pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants.(4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13) (Utah’s highest in the nation autism rates are matched by the highest rates of anti-depressant use and the highest mercury levels in the country in the Great Salt Lake.)

Doctors have long advised women during pregnancy to avoid any unnecessary consumption of drugs or chemicals. But as participants in modern society, we are all now exposed to over 83,000 chemicals from the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the consumer products we use. Pregnant women and their children are experiencing 100 times more chemical exposures today than people living 50 years ago. The average newborn has over 287 different chemicals and heavy metals contaminating its blood when it takes its first breath.(14, 15) One hundred and fifty-eight of them are known to be toxic to the brain. Little wonder that rates of autism, attention deficit and behavioral disorders are all on the rise.

How does this relate to disappearing bees and your ability to put food on your table? Three new studies show that the rapid rise in the use of insecticides are likely responsible for the mass disappearance of bee populations.(16, 17, 18) The world’s entire food chain hangs in the balance because 90 percent of native plants require pollinators to survive.

The nervous system of insects is the intended target of these insecticides. They disrupt the bees homing behavior and their ability to return to the hive, kind of like “bee autism.” But insects are different than humans, right? Human and insect nerve cells share the same basic biologic infrastructure. Chemicals that interrupt electrical impulses in insect nerves will do the same to humans.

But humans are much bigger than insects and the doses to humans are miniscule, right? During critical first trimester development, a human is no bigger than an insect, so there is every reason to believe that pesticides could wreak havoc with the developing brain of a human embryo. But human embryos aren’t out in corn fields being sprayed with insecticides and herbicides, are they? A recent study showed that every human tested had the world’s most popular pesticide, Roundup, detectable in their urine at concentrations between five and twenty times the level considered safe for drinking water.

The autism epidemic and the disappearance of bees are just two of many self-imposed disasters from allowing our world, including Utah, to be overwhelmed by environmental toxins. Environmental protection- including the smallest and most vulnerable among us – is human protection.


1. Hallmayer J, Cleveland S, Torres A, et al. “Genetic Heritability and Shared Environmental Factors Among Twin Pairs With Autism,” Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(11):1095-1102. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.76.

2. James SJ, Slikker W, Melnyk S, New E, Pogribna M, Jernigan S. “Thimerosol Neurotoxicity is Associated with Glutathione Depletion: Protection with Glutathione Precursors,” NeuroToxicology 26.(2005) 1-8.

3. Adams J, Baral M, Geis E, et al. “The Severity of Autism Is Associated with Toxic Metal Body Burden and Red Blood Cell Glutathione Levels,” Journal of Toxicology Volume 2009.(2009), Article ID 532640, 7 pages. doi:10.1155/2009/532640.

4. Croen L, Grether J, Yoshida C, Odouli R, Hendrick V, “Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy and Childhood Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(11):1104-1112. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.73

5. Volk H, Hertz-Picciotto I, Delwiche L , Lurmann F, McConnell R. “Residential Proximity to Freeways and Autism in the CHARGE study,” Environ Health Perspect. 2010 December 13. (Epub ahead of print.) PMID: 21156395.

6. Whyatt RM, Liu X, Rauh VA, Calafat AM, Just AC, Hoepner L, et al. 2011. “Maternal Prenatal Urinary Phthalate Metabolite Concentrations and Child Mental, Psychomotor and Behavioral Development at 3 Years of Age,” Environ Health Perspect 120:290-295.

7. Kern J, Geier D, Adams J, Mehta J, Grannemann B, Geier M. “Toxicity biomarkers in autism spectrum disorder: A blinded study of urinary porphyrins,” Pediatrics International. (2011) 53, 147–153 doi: 10.1111/j.1442-200X.2010.03196.x.

8. Miodovnik, A, SM Engel, C Zhu, X Ye, LV Soorya, MJ Silva, AM Calafat and MS Wolff. 2011. “Endocrine disruptors and childhood social impairment,” Neurotoxicology.

9. Roberts, EM et al. “Maternal residence near agricultural pesticide applications and autism spectrum disorders among children in the California Central Valley,” Environmental Health Perspectives. 115(10):1482-1489.

10. Henrik Viberg anders Fredriksson, Sonja Buratovic, Per Eriksson. “Dose-dependent behavioral disturbances after a single neonatal Bisphenol A dose,” Toxicology, 2011; DOI: 10.1016/j.tox.2011.09.006.

11. Whyatt RM, Liu X, Rauh VA, Calafat AM, Just AC, Hoepner L, et al. 2011. “Maternal Prenatal Urinary Phthalate Metabolite Concentrations and Child Mental, Psychomotor and Behavioral Development at Age Three Years,” Environ Health Perspect.

12. Holmes AS, Blaxill MF, Haley BE; “Reduced levels of mercury in first baby haircuts of autistic children,” Int J Toxicol. 2003 Jul-Aug;22(4):277-85.

13. Allen J, Shanker G, Tan K, Aschner M. “The Consequences of Methylmercury Exposure on Interactive Functions between Astrocytes and Neurons,” Neurotoxicology 23.(2002) 755-759.

14. “Body Burden – The Pollution in Newborns,” Environmental Working Group, 2005.

15. Woodruff TJ, Zota AR, Schwartz JM 2011. “Environmental Chemicals in Pregnant Women in the United States: NHANES 2003-2004,” Environ Health Perspect 119:878-885.

16. M. Henry et al. “A common pesticide decreases foraging success and survival in honey bees,” Science. doi: 10.1126/science.1215039.

17. P.R. Whitehorn et al. “Neonicotinoid pesticide reduces bumble bee colony growth and queen production,” Science. doi: 10.1126/science.1215025.

18. C. Lu, K.M. Warchol and R.A. Callahan. “In situ replication of honey bee colony collapse disorder,” Bulletin of Insectology, Vol. 65, June 2012.