Scientists now say that autism is caused by exposure to heavy metal pollution. This has been blamed on the mercury that was once used as a preservative in children’s vaccines, but power plants and car exhausts spew out heavy metals as well. In fact, there may be a great deal of these dangerous substances in your own home.

Exposure to heavy metals, such as lead, mercury and arsenic, can come from surprising sources, from glazed pottery to herbal supplements. While limited exposure to them isn’t likely to result in harmful health effects, it’s wise to be aware of them, especially if you encounter heavy metals on a regular basis. Some general symptoms of heavy metal toxicity include loss of feeling, especially in the fingertips; hearing loss; impaired concentration; and personality changes.

Lead can find its way into the body if it’s inhaled as dust or fumes, or in the case of small children, inadvertently ingested in the form of old paint chips. Lead-based paint was commonly used in homes built before 1978. Children who ingest flakes of lead-based paint may experience anemia, unexplained stomachaches and developmental delays. Some tableware, such as leaded crystal, pewter and some glazed pottery, can be a source of lead, even more so if acidic foods or liquids are served from them. Hobbyists who create stained glass or pottery can be at risk. Soldering to create stained glass can produce lead-laden fumes. Pottery glazes with white or yellow finishes can contain lead. Be aware that small jewelry crafted in China may be made with lead. And be cautious using dietary supplements, especially products originating in China, where lead exposure risks are not as well known.

You are most likely to encounter mercury in its organic form, methyl mercury, when eating certain fish or shellfish. Mercury can be especially high in shark, swordfish, tuna, pike, walleye, bass and Atlantic salmon. Over the years, some have raised questions about mercury in dental fillings. So far, no link has been made between metal dental fillings and changes in the central nervous system.

Arsenic is mostly found in garden pesticides and herbicides. Until recently, arsenic could be found in pressure-treated lumber. If you work with older, treated lumber, take precautions.

Meanwhile, anthropologist Richard Grinker, who is the father of an autistic daughter, has come up with the controversial idea that there is no evidence for an autism epidemic. He thinks that the high rates of diagnosis today are instead evidence that scientists are finally, after all these years, counting these cases correctly. Previously a child with autism might have received a diagnosis of mental retardation or no treatment or help at all.

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