Monday, February 8, 2010

Landfills and Autism

Driving back today from an errand, I passed a garbage hauler headed for the landfill 4 miles away. It reminded me that our landfill not only serves the S.E. Michigan area (including Detroit), but garbage from the city of Toronto is also hauled there. This arrangement has been in place for about 10 years. That's a big landfill.

It appears to me that the rate and severity of autism are higher in my area than in other areas where I've lived and worked. If so, is the proximity of this landfill a coincidence? It will be a while before epidemiologists are able to answer my question. But I did find one preliminary study addressing the topic. When I googled "autism" and "landfills," this article appeared first:
Autism Spectrum Disorders and Identified Toxic Land Fills: Co-Occurrence Across States, by Xue Ming, Michael Brimacombe, Joanne H. Malek, Nisha Jani and George C. Wagner in Environmental Health Insights 2008:2. It was dated Aug 20, 2008. In their words:
We hypothesize that ASD are associated with early and repeated exposures to any of a number of toxicants or mixtures of toxicants. It is the cumulative effects of these repeated exposures acting upon genetically susceptible individuals that lead to the phenotypes of ASD.
In a nutshell, the authors found that the occurrence of autism is higher near Superfund landfill sites than in areas without landfills. They go on to give results of a simple first look at the situation.
The residence of 495 ASD patients in New Jersey by zip code and the toxic landfill sites were plotted on a map of Northern New Jersey. The area of highest ASD cases coincides with the highest density of toxic landfill sites while the area with lowest ASD cases has the lowest density of toxic landfill sites. Furthermore, the number of toxic Superfund sites and autism rate across 49 of the 50 states shows a statistically significant correlation...

There is a superfund site within 20 miles of where I live (in addition to the big landfill down the road). It's quite a complex situation and I'm not sure that we want to wait for the epidemiologists. Last week, the health advocate, Dr. Weil (, wrote:
Environmental toxins such as lead, mercury and dioxin are serious hazards to human health. Fortunately, there are ways to both minimize your exposure to and lower the quantity of toxins in your body ... Avoid living or working near hazardous sites such as reclaimed landfills or toxic waste dumps.
In my opinion future parents should truly think about where they work, what they do and where they live in order to decrease their likelihood for genetic mutation and the risk of autism in their children.