Beware the pollutants linked to autism

The rate of autism among children has been increasing at a frightening rate. A study at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health shows that common pollutants may be contributing to the condition.

The research, performed in southwestern Pennsylvania, shows that pregnant mothers who inhale certain toxic substances in air pollution are much more likely to give birth to children with autism. And kids up to two years of age who are exposed to these substances also have a greater likelihood of becoming autistic.

“Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a major public health problem, and their prevalence has increased dramatically,” says researcher Evelyn Talbott, a professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health. “Despite its serious social impact, the causes of autism are poorly understood. Very few studies of autism have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors. Our analysis is an addition to the small but growing body of research that considers air toxics as one of the risk factors for ASD.”

The study looked at families in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. The scientists discovered an association between high levels of chromium and styrene exposure and autism spectrum disorder.

Among the families involved in the research, children who experienced the greatest exposure to styrene and chromium ran a 1.4- to two-fold greater chance of ASD. Other problematic pollutants included arsenic, cyanide, methylene chloride and methanol.

Styrene is a compound used to make plastics and paints. It is also present in car and truck exhaust. The heavy metal chromium is released into the air during the hardening of steel and is emitted by power plants. Cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic are also contained in car and truck exhaust.
“Our results add to the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures, such as air pollution, to ASD,” said Dr. Talbott. “The next step will be confirming our findings with studies that measure the specific exposure to air pollutants at an individual level to verify these EPA-modeled estimates.”

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Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.