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Senate hearing focuses on autism research

By Ed Kang
September 2010

In an August 3 hearing, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Children's Health met to discuss the state of research on environmental factors related to autism and related disorders. Held in the Dirkson Senate Office Building in Washington and broadcast live on C-SPAN3, the hearing ( Exit NIEHS focused on the "State of Research on Potential Environmental Health Factors with Autism and Related Neurodevelopment Disorders."

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS/NTP, and Paul Anastas, M.D., assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Research and Development, were joined by veteran NIEHS grantees Issac Pessah, Ph.D., and Bruce Lanphear, M.D., to offer their perspectives on the latest advances and areas for opportunity in autism research.

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Pointing to the suffering of families and the billions of dollars of economic impact from disease-related expenditures, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the Committee on Public Works, noted the urgency surrounding science's search for answers. "Research is especially important now, since some data indicates that the occurrence of autism is growing," said Boxer, referring to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 110 U.S. children have symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS/NTP
NIEHS enjoyed a high profile at the hearing, with testimony by Birnbaum, above, and researchers funded by NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Lanphear, director of the Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Center, noted the changing landscape of scientific understanding surrounding childhood disease and development. "The findings from research on some of the most thoroughly studied and widely dispersed environmental toxicants indicate that exposure to exceedingly low levels are risk factors for the 'new morbidities' of childhood - intellectual impairments, behavioral problems, asthma, and preterm birth," he said. "Indeed, there is often no apparent threshold and, in some cases, the effects appear to be greater at the lowest levels of exposure." 

Lawmakers address clusters, chemical reform

Boxer explained Congress's intent to focus on legislation. "When these disorders appear in concentrations or clusters, it may be an indication that environmental factors are playing a role in making people sick," she said. 

To help address the issue, Boxer said she is introducing legislation to ensure that federal agencies are coordinating their efforts on disease clusters as effectively as possible. "My bill will also require EPA to upgrade data tracking systems to strengthen the federal government's ability to investigate disease clusters," she added.

Boxer also referenced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, which Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced earlier this year. The bill, an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, would strengthen the way the federal government regulates toxic chemicals by requiring the chemical industry to prove the safety of their chemicals before introducing them to market.

Pessach, who has led the University of California (UC), Davis Center for Children's Environmental Health since 2001, supports limiting exposure to harmful chemicals to mitigate or prevent autism in susceptible individuals. "Only by bringing together the concerted effort of multidisciplinary teams of scientists can we identify which of the more than 80,000 commercially important chemicals currently in production promote developmental neurotoxicity," he stated.

According to Anastas, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has emphasized strengthened chemical management as a top priority. "Research to better understand the environmental contributions to ASD and other disorders will help us develop policies and actions to reduce them," he explained. "We must also develop safer chemicals to reduce and prevent adverse effects to children's health."

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Birnbaum describes autism research efforts funded by NIEHS

Two large research efforts are co-funded by NIEHS to better understand the causes and contributing factors for autism or developmental delay, Birnbaum told the subcommittee. 

The Childhood Autism Risks from Genes and the Environment (CHARGE) study is the first large-scale human population case-control study of children with autism. Researchers at UC Davis are looking at a wide range of environmental exposures and their effects on early development in three groups of 1,600 California children: children with autism, children with developmental delay who do not have autism, and children from the general population. Heavy metals are one of the classes of exposure being investigated.

"Perhaps the most interesting new findings from the CHARGE study relate immune system alterations in children to the development of autism," said Birnbaum. "These findings point to the need for further study on the interface of the immune and nervous systems in autism etiology."

In another NIEHS-funded project, the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) study, researchers at the Drexel University School of Public Health are enrolling mothers who have a child with autism and are pregnant again. This longitudinal study, one of the largest of its kind, will follow 1,000 mothers during their pregnancy and their new babies through age three to identify prenatal, neonatal, and early postnatal exposures that may influence risk of developing autism.

September workshop to target environmental factors and autism

A workshop will be held September 8 on the campus of NIEHS to identify opportunities to accelerate research on environmental factors and autism.  Discussion will focus on recent advances in autism research, emerging tools and technologies in environmental health sciences, and analogies to successful approaches in other environmentally mediated diseases.

This workshop is a joint effort between the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Autism Speaks. A full agenda and list of presenters is available online.

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