Can Folic Acid Mitigate Autism-linked Effects of Pesticides?

by Danielle E. Owen September 25, 2017

pills tablet pregnant woman illustration

Among the rows of grape-drenched vines and bars full of empty wineglasses, is my hometown: Napa, California (aka the most perfect place to return to as a vino-loving adult). But growing up in such an agriculturally-dense valley has invisible dangers. Like the massive amount of pesticides dumped on those moneymaker vineyards, and the potential link between those pesticides and Napa County’s No. 1 ranking for the rate of childhood cancer in all of California. Additionally, a study out of nearby UC Davis showed that “women who lived within a mile of agricultural fields where organophosphate insecticides were applied during pregnancy had a 60 percent increased risk of having children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.” A large body of research has shown that consuming a folate-containing prenatal vitamin reduces a child’s risk of later developing an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). But new research suggests that taking over 800 micrograms of folic acid around the time of conception can helpmitigate the autism-linked effects of pesticides. Children whose mothers were taking the folic acid had a significantly lower risk of developing an ASD, even when the mothers were exposed to pesticides on a daily basis. Mothers who took less than 800 micrograms and encountered household pesticides had a much higher risk – a risk that increased with repeat exposure. Napa is just one example, but it helps illustrate a much larger picture. Many Americans are exposed daily to dangerous pesticides – both from nearby agriculture and in their own homes. Many of these women can’t control their environmental or household exposure to pesticides, but studies like this can help put some of the power back in their hands. It’s important to note that research like this does not determine causality. A lack of folic acid around the time of conception does not cause autism. Nor does consuming an adequate amount prevent it. Instead, this research notes a statistical significance between the prevalence of ASD in children whose mothers had taken 800 micrograms of folic acid (the amount in a standard prenatal vitamin) compared to those whose mothers didn’t, when they were both exposed to pesticides. This suggests that folic acid can help mitigate the harmful effects of pesticides on a developing fetus. Beyond prevention methods, the implication of research like this is potentially even greater. When cells are developing rapidly in utero, folic acid acts to assist the DNA. Understanding exactly how this happens and if/how it can help prevent ASD (among other developmental disorders) is the next step in protecting our children while they're still in utero. Most mothers-to-be already understand the benefits of prenatal vitamins rich in folic acid, but there can never be a shortage of studies to support its benefits. If you’re planning to conceive, research has shown nothing but positive outcomes to an increased folic acid consumption.


Danielle E. Owen

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