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Mercury (Hg) has been suspected of causing autism in the past, especially a suspected link with vaccinations containing thiomersal, but a review of the literature shows that has been largely repudiated. Of more significant burden is the total quantity of Hg in the environment. Here, we have used the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) to test whether prenatal exposure from total maternal blood Hg in the first half of pregnancy is associated with the risk of autism or of extreme levels of autistic traits. This is the largest longitudinal study to date to have tested this hypothesis and the only one to have considered early pregnancy.
We have used three strategies: (1) direct comparison of 45 pregnancies resulting in children with diagnosed autism from a population of 3840, (2) comparison of high scores on each of the four autistic traits within the population at risk (n~2800), and (3) indirect measures of association of these outcomes with proxies for increased Hg levels such as frequency of fish consumption and exposure to dental amalgam (n > 8000). Logistic regression adjusted for social conditions including maternal age, housing circumstances, maternal education, and parity. Interactions were tested between risks to offspring of fish and non-fish eaters.
There was no suggestion of an adverse effect of total prenatal blood Hg levels on diagnosed autism (AOR 0.89; 95% CI 0.65, 1.22) per SD of Hg (P = 0.485). The only indication of adverse effects concerned a measure of poor social cognition when the mother ate no fish, where the AOR was 1.63 [95% CI 1.02, 2.62] per SD of Hg (P = 0.041), significantly different from the association among the offspring of fish-eaters (AOR = 0.74 [95% CI 0.41, 1.35]).
In conclusion, our study identifies no adverse effect of prenatal total blood Hg on autism or autistic traits provided the mother ate fish. Although these results should be confirmed in other populations, accumulating evidence substantiates the recommendation to eat fish during pregnancy.