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Examining Autism and the Environment: Is There a Link?

Is there a causal relationship between autism and the environment?

Nationally prominent doctors and researchers will gather on Friday, June 24, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., to discuss their views at a conference, Environmental Toxicity and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, in the Power Center Ballroom at Duquesne University.

The conference, hosted by Duquesne and The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, will include a presentation on Chemicals, Metals and Autism: A Tale of Two Studies by Dr. H.M. “Skip” Kingston, chemistry professor in DU’s Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, and Dr. Scott Faber, a developmental pediatrician at The Children’s Institute.

“With reports of alarming rates of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in children, we wanted to look at environmental exposure and how children are dealing with toxins as one of the causal factors of autism and related disorders,” said Kingston, whose work was sponsored by the Heinz Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. “We decided to focus on heavy metals and chemicals and development of accurate tests of a suite of BioChemiMarkers,” which are indicators of human health system function.

One of these BioChemiMarkers, glutathione, is an immune system component in most cells of the body and is essential because of its role in acute response to environmental insult. Heavy metals have been proposed by many researchers as important factors that generally cause adverse health by shifting the glutathione balance in humans. An even greater cause for concern is the health of children, vulnerable because of their still-developing immune systems, and how their bodies deal with toxins and negative impacts.

Experts in the field are evaluating and discussing Kingston’s and Faber’s findings. “Further studies could look at predicting autism physically and catching it earlier so that treatment may start before the child has become too ill,” Kingston said. “Many of our MD colleagues have had success and seen improvement in many children with autism, and more accurate measurements may assist in early diagnosis and treatment.”

Because the conference is sponsored, in part, by a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration Office of Rural Health, researchers and doctors are charged with offering potential strategies to create positive changes in environmental and health practices and policies.

Besides Kingston and Faber, the nationally renowned speakers are:

  • Dr. Martha Herbert, pediatric neurologist, Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard Medical School
  • Dr. Fredrica Perera, professor, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health
  • Dr. Isaac Pessah, professor of toxicology, The University of California, Davis School of Medicine
  • Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, dean for global health and Ethel H. Wise Professor, chair, Department of Preventive Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine
  • Dr. Claudia S. Miller, professor of environmental and occupational Medicine, vice chair, Department of Family and Community Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio
  • Dr. Bernard Weiss, professor of environmental medicine and pediatrics, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Continuing learning credits for professionals are available. The conference, $25, is also open to parents and all others interested. Parking is available in the adjacent Forbes Garage.

A second conference, also sponsored by Duquesne and The Children’s Institute, is scheduled on Friday, July 15, at the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown, WV. The conference fee also is $25.

A limited number of scholarships are available for the conferences. For more information about scholarships or the conference, contact Mary Green of The Hutton Group at 412.833.4360.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.