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photography by mckenzie james

A team of York Univer­sity health researchers has produced a list of products that may trigger autism in developing fetal brains – ones that expectant mothers should avoid during their first trimester.

“The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders has been rising at an exponential rate over the past few years, warranting particular attention to understanding how and why these disorders develop,” says the study’s lead author Dorota Crawford, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science.

The list of items containing potentially harmful chemicals includes: cleaning solvents, pesticides, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, PVC flooring, children’s toys, cosmetics, lotions and industrial lubricants, among others.

“Prenatal brain development is very dynamic and undergoes constant changes,” says Crawford. “Development of the brain is tightly regulated by specific levels of genes at any given time in development. The environment, including chemicals or drugs, can influence levels of these genes and so influence the development of the brain.”

The researchers – Crawford, along with co-authors Christine Wong and Joshua Wais – report that aside from the type of chemicals a pregnant woman is exposed to, the duration and frequency of exposure and the concentration levels also impact a developing brain at the prenatal stage.

What can expectant mothers do to mitigate the risk? Crawford says being an informed consumer is important: “The products that we use on a daily basis, such as creams or cosmetics, may contain chemicals that could potentially affect a developing baby during pregnancy.”

For more information, she recommends taking a look at Health Canada’s online Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist of prohibited and restricted ingredients.

Crawford’s lab focuses on how abnormal levels of bioactive lipid molecules naturally found in the body disrupt development of the brain and investigates how increased or decreased levels of lipids can affect the function and maturation of brain cells.

“We have found that elevated levels of certain lipids alter the communication between cells in the brain and their proper migration and differentiation into neurons,” she says. “Research in our lab provides novel molecular ­evidence that environmental triggers that influence the level of lipids in the brain can indeed affect brain cells during early development.”

According to Crawford, only a few ­clinical studies have delved into the dosage level and exposure time that impacts the developing brain. “Specific concentration ranges for chemicals and the duration of exposure that might be harmful for humans still need to be established through research.”

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