An anti-pesticide manifesto [PDF] from the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) has recently made a few headlines in big papers and nabbed a feature on an NPR member station with claims that “children today are sicker than they were a generation ago” and that pesticides are a “key driver” of the increase in childhood disorders such as “childhood cancers … autism, birth defects, and asthma.” The news reports almost invariably describe the tome in scientific terms without mentioning that it’s self published and not peer reviewed and contains no new data or information. The stories do not fail, however, to mention autism and to mention it early.
The PANNA authors pin their autism claim in part on the much written-about “autism epidemic.” While environmental factors might play some role in a small portion of the increase in autism, as I argue here, the general consensus appears to be that diagnostic substitution and enhanced awareness and recognition are the main drivers. Regardless of whether a genuine increase exists and what environmental factors are key to it, very little published evidence suggests a link between autism diagnoses and pesticide exposures. Yet the two keep popping up together in articles that sensationalize a relationship or posit one from research that doesn’t address autism at all.