Monsanto PCBs and Their Link to Autism

autism diagnosis

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pregnant women with relatively high levels of certain PCBs had children who were 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children born to women with lower levels
  • Children in the higher PCB exposure groups also had double the risk of intellectual disabilities (without autism)
  • PCBs have previously been shown to disrupt brain development and cause brain damage, neurological abnormalities, reduced IQ and aggressiveness in children

By Dr. Mercola

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were produced from the 1930s through the 1970s. Their high burning temperature made them a sought-after chemical for use as fire retardants and insulators, primarily in electronic devices although also in plastics, flooring and other industrial products.

After an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the U.S. — the majority by Monsanto — it was revealed that they’re incredibly toxic and persistent in the environment.

They were finally banned in 1979 after their carcinogenic potential and ability to accumulate in the environment were revealed, however their toxicity was known to Monsanto long before that, perhaps as early as the 1950s and likely by 1970.1

PCBs have also been linked to infertility and reproductive and endocrine damage along with neurological effects, including damage to learning and memory. They’re known neurodevelopmental toxins and a recent study has also found an association with autism.

In Utero Exposure to PCBs May Increase Autism Risk

Pregnant women with relatively high levels of certain PCBs had children who were 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children born to women with lower levels. Those in the higher PCB exposure groups also had double the risk of intellectual disabilities (without autism).2

Study author Kristen Lyall, Sc.D., assistant professor in Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, told Drexel University:3

“To examine the role of environmental exposures in risk of autism, it is important that samples are collected during time frames with evidence for susceptibility for autism — termed 'critical windows' in neurodevelopment. Fetal development is one of those critical windows.

… Adverse effects are related to levels of exposure, not just presence or absence of detectable levels … In our Southern California study population, we found evidence for modestly increased risk for individuals in the highest 25th percentile of exposure to some of these chemicals …

The results suggest that prenatal exposure to these chemicals above a certain level may influence neurodevelopment in adverse ways.”

Are Children Still Being Harmed by Monsanto’s PCBs?

According to the researchers:4

“The overall pattern of our results suggests increases in risk of ASD [autism spectrum disorder] and ID [intellectual disability] with prenatal exposure to higher levels of a number of OCCs [organochlorine compounds], and in particular, PCBs.”

The PCBs most significantly linked with autism were PCB 138/158 and PCB 153, which increased the risk of autism up to 82 percent at high exposure levels in utero. PCB 170 and PCB 180 were linked to a 50 percent increased risk of autism at high prenatal exposure levels.

Even though PCBs haven’t been used for decades, they don’t break down easily in the environment, which means virtually everyone’s been exposed. While you can be exposed from breathing PCB-contaminated air, the most common route of exposure is via your food, especially seafood.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR):5

Although PCBs are no longer manufactured in the United States, people can still be exposed to them … Because they are resistant to degradation, highly chlorinated PCB compounds can persist in the environment for decades … Food is the main source of exposure to PCBs for the general population.”

PCBs are, unfortunately, another one of Monsanto’s toxic legacies that continue to cause immeasurable harm.

In addition to the recent Drexel University study, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai identified PCBs as one of 11 environmental chemicals that disrupt brain development and cause brain damage, neurological abnormalities, reduced IQ, and aggressiveness in children.6

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Monsanto Faces Hundreds of Lawsuits Over PCBs

Monsanto (and Monsanto-related entities) is now facing at least 700 lawsuits on behalf of people who claim their exposure to PCBs caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma.7

In addition, an increasing number of U.S. cities, including Seattle, Washington, Spokane, Washington and San Diego, San Jose, Oakland and Berkeley, California, have filed lawsuits against the company for causing disastrous environmental pollution.

In 2002, Monsanto was found guilty of decades of "outrageous acts of pollution" in the town of Anniston, Alabama, where it dumped PCBs into the local river and secretly buried the toxic chemical in a landfill.8

How Many PCBs Are in Your Fish Dinner?

Many people choose to eat seafood because they believe it to be a healthy food source. Unfortunately, decades of pollution from PCBs and other toxins have left many waterways full of chemical cocktails that bioaccumulate in the creatures living within. As a result, most seafood is too polluted to eat.

The exception is the fairly limited selection of seafood that comes from pristine, non-polluted waters, like wild-caught Alaskan salmon, or fish that are too small to accumulate many toxins during their lifespan (like sardines and anchovies).

In the U.S., however, farmed salmon is one of the most popular seafood choices, with many being misled to believe it is a safe choice for dinner. In reality, farmed salmon is one of the worst seafood choices available, especially in terms of PCBs.

For starters, their pens are often placed near shore, which means they’re close to land-based sources of pollutant run-off. In addition, they’re fed a diet of ground-up fishmeal, which may lead to concentrated levels of PCBs.

In a global assessment of farmed salmon published in the journal Science, PCB concentrations in farmed salmon were found to be eight times higher than in wild salmon.9

Similarly, when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested farmed salmon from U.S. grocery stores, they found farmed salmon had, on average:10

  • 16 times more PCBs than wild salmon
  • 4 times more PCBs than beef
  • 3.4 times more PCBs than other seafood

According to EWG:11

PCBs concentrate in oils and fat, and previous tests of salmon feed have consistently found PCB contamination. If farmed salmon with the average PCB level found in this study were caught in the wild, EPA advice would restrict consumption to no more than one meal a month.

But because farmed salmon are bought, not caught, their consumption is not restricted in any way.”

Seafood Fraud: Seafood Is Often Mislabeled

It’s incredibly important to know what type of seafood you’re eating, because different varieties vary widely in their level of pollutants like PCBs. Unfortunately, it can be virtually impossible to know what type of seafood you’re actually eating.

According to a report by oceans advocacy non-profit organization Oceana, 1 in 3 seafood samples tested in the U.S. were mislabeled. Red snapper and tuna were mislabeled most often (87 percent and 59 percent of the time, respectively), but even salmon is often not what it claims to be on the label.12

In one Oceana study, for instance, 43 percent of U.S. salmon samples were mislabeled, with many samples labeled “wild” in restaurants and grocery stores turning out to be farmed.13

This is potentially health harming for anyone, but for those at high risk from PCB exposure, such as pregnant women, breastfeeding women, young children and the elderly (who may have a harder time excreting these toxins), consuming mislabeled “wild” salmon that is actually farmed could be devastating, especially if you consume it often.

For Lower PCBs, Look for Alaskan or Sockeye Salmon

If you’re looking for salmon that is not dangerously contaminated with PCBs, avoided all farmed salmon. Among the safest in terms of contamination, and the highest in healthy omega-3 fat, is wild-caught Alaskan and sockeye salmon. Neither is allowed to be farmed and is therefore always wild-caught.

The risk of sockeye accumulating high amounts of pollutants is reduced because of its short life cycle, which is only about three years. Additionally, bioaccumulation of toxins is also reduced by the fact that it doesn't feed on other already-contaminated, fish. The two designations you want to look for on the label are: “Alaskan salmon” (or wild Alaskan salmon) and “Sockeye salmon.” Canned salmon labeled "Alaskan salmon" is also a good choice and offers a less expensive alternative to salmon fillets.

Glyphosate: Another Monsanto Product Associated With Autism?

As the saying goes, a leopard doesn’t change its spots, and it’s not a stretch to assume that a company like Monsanto, one of the producers of not only PCBs but also Agent Orange, would continue to manufacture toxic products, i.e., glyphosate.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide and the most used agricultural chemical in history, is a probable carcinogen and also leads to the creation of ammonia (a byproduct created when certain microbes break down glyphosate in your body).

Children with autism tend to have significantly higher levels of ammonia in their blood than the general population. In your brain, ammonia causes encephalitis, i.e., brain inflammation.

Further, according to research by former U.S. Navy staff scientist Nancy Swanson, Ph.D., the incidence of autism has risen in a near-perfect correlation with glyphosate usage. As it stands, the exact causes of autism remain unclear, but it’s becoming increasingly likely that environmental exposures are involved.

To protect not only the people on earth now but also those that will make up future generations, it’s important that the widespread environmental contamination caused by chemicals like PCBs is not allowed to happen all over again.