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Autism and Environmental Health in China

From left: Drs. Jinsong Zhang, Alycia Halladay, Jim Zhang, Alice Kau, Fenxi Ouyang and Xiaoddan Yu

Posted by Autism Speaks Director of Research for Environmental Science, Alycia Halladay, Ph.D.

To date, relatively few scientists are studying autism in China. Clearly the need there is great, for with its population of over a billion, we may be looking at millions of persons affected by autism. With this in mind, Autism Speaks partnered with China’s Fudan University to convene a meeting of leading international experts in autism and children’s health in Shanghai last week.

As part of this visit, I and development psychologist Alice Kau, Ph.D., of the National Institute for Child Health & Human Development, visited Xin Hua Hospital and its recently completed Shanghai Key Lab of Children’s Environmental Health. Both are affiliated Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University School of Medicine.

There we met the lab’s executive director, Jun Jim Zhang, MD, Ph.D., and his colleagues. In recent years, they have been studying how exposure to heavy metals such as mercury and lead affects child development. Environmental lead contamination, a problem largely minimized in the United States, remains a widespread problem in China, owing to unsafe disposal of lead products including waste from lead battery plants.

The Shanghai Key Lab’s affiliation with Xin Hua Hospital allows its scientists to collect blood samples at birth and throughout a child’s development. Their lab is also collecting information on intellectual function and other developmental behaviors. Among their projects is the Shanghai Birth Cohort, which will recruit 100,000 pregnant women from hospitals throughout Shanghai and follow their children throughout adolescence.

To date, the researchers at Shanghai’s Key Lab have been focusing their research on potential environmental causes of childhood asthma, sleep disorders and leukemia. Looking forward, they are keenly interested in expanding their research to include neurodevelopmental issues such as autism.

Thanks to our new collaboration, they will be participating in Autism Speaks Environmental Epidemiology of Autism Research Network. In doing so, they will be sharing their information with autism researchers in North America and elsewhere, even as they receive guidance on screening for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Given the unique physical, chemical and psychosocial environment in China, we believe that this collaboration can greatly advance our understanding of the environmental and genetic risk factors that contribute to the development of ASD. We look forward to working with this wonderful research team to help solve the autism puzzle in China, North America, and around the world.

  1. Sarah
    November 10, 2011 at 9:19 am

    AWESOME!!! (in some ways) re: what science will find, for example,

    “The Hidden Toll of Traffic Jams – Scientists Increasingly Link Vehicle Exhaust With Brain-Cell Damage, Higher Rates of Autism”
    The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 8, 2011)

    Denial from some quarters that pollution, toxicity and climate change isn’t real is just jaw-dropping, ultimately resulting in true industry and corporate influence and then political caving. For example,

    “Before Obama retreat on ozone, EPA chief fretted over likely illnesses and deaths – While Obama yielded to pressure, Lisa Jackson focused on ‘newly available evidence’ for harm from smog”
    The Center for Public Integrity – iWatch News (Oct. 11, 2011)

    Cynical side of me says, invest in air and water purification corporations and that we are heading fast towards WALL-E’s world and nothing will stop this corporate, pollution, industry above health nightmare.

    Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Pollyanna side of me continues to hope and pray that we can effect change.

    So back to my original reaction, but a bit more muted.


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