Catching up: autism and pesticides, fighting superbugs with dirt, and vitamin overdose

I just got back from a wonderful vacation in Colorado, and discovered that a lot of interesting health science happened (or was published, at least) while I was away! 

I was particularly interested to see the headlines about a study out of the University of California, Davis, showing that babies born to mothers who live close to crops treated with pesticides may be more likely to develop autism.

Any time I read a claim about autism spectrum disorders I get a little skeptical, because autism -- like vaccines, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia and other tricky-to-diagnose-and-understand conditions -- is a lightning rod for confusion and scare-mongering. But the results of this study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, are pretty striking.

It looked at women living within a mile of crops treated with organophosphate pesticides, and found that children born to women living less than a mile away were 60 percent more likely to have an autism spectrum disorder than those born farther away. Children of pregnant women living near crops treated with chlorpyrifos, which was banned for residential use more than a decade ago based on concerns about its neurological impact on children, were 3.3 times more likely to have an autism spectrum disorder, according to the UC Davis study.

It's the third study linking prenatal exposure to pesticides with autism, and the first to show a link with pyrethroids, which have been used as the "safer alternative" to chlorpyrifos, according to study authors, who told Scientific American that current data does not show a direct causation between any particular pesticide and an individual's autism risk. I'm looking forward to reading more research on this in the future.

In exciting bacteria news, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario have reportedly found a way to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria using a soil sample from Nova Scotia. In Nature's current cover report, researchers detail their finding that a compound produced by the Aspergillus fungus can block NDM-1, the enzyme responsible for the antibiotic-resistant properties of many bacteria. 

The compound is called aspergillomarasmine A, or AMA, and it was actually discovered more than 50 years ago as one of the causes of wilting in plants. As it turns out, it also might help fight superbugs. The researchers are now hoping to find a way to use AMA in conjunction with existing antibiotics to treat those who contract resistant bacteria, which is becoming an increasing concern around the world.

And vitamins are making headlines again, thanks to a new report from the Environmental Working Group suggesting that kids who eat breakfast cereal may be getting an "overdose" of certain vitamins. Most people don't get enough calcium, vitamin D or vitamin E, but according to the new EWG paper (and Mother Jones), kids who eat cereal are likely consuming too much niacin, zinc and vitamin A, which can cause liver problems, anemia, skin issues and osteoporosis, among other unfortunate things.

As with linking autism and pesticides, it's next to impossible to prove that an individual kid contracted a specific condition from overconsumption of one or a few particular vitamins, but the researchers say that long-term continued consumption of cereal and cereal bars that are "vitamin enriched" may contribute to the development of chronic health issues associated with vitamin overconsumption.