Is Air Pollution Raising Autism Risk in Kids?

Autism rates among children are on the rise, and one potential contributing factor to this alarming trend is the exposure to common air pollutants. Research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health demonstrates that pregnant mothers who breathe in particular toxic air pollutants show an increased likelihood of having a child with autism. The risk of developing autism is also present for children under two years of age who are exposed to these pollutants.

The Growing Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have dramatically increased in frequency, posing a significant public health concern. The causes of autism, however, remain poorly understood. Researcher Evelyn Talbott, a professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health, notes that very few autism studies have explored the role of environmental exposures while also accounting for other personal and behavioral risk factors. This new analysis will add valuable insight and contribute to the limited research examining air toxics and their potential role in the development of ASD.

In this study, researchers examined families in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties, finding an association between notably high levels of chromium and styrene exposure and the onset of autism spectrum disorders.

The Danger of Styrene and Chromium

Children who experienced the highest exposure to styrene and chromium faced a 1.4 to two-fold increase in their likelihood of receiving an ASD diagnosis. Other harmful pollutants found to play a potential role in ASD development included arsenic, cyanide, methylene chloride, and methanol.

Styrene is a compound commonly used in the manufacturing of plastics and paints and is also found in car and truck exhaust. Chromium, a heavy metal, is released into the atmosphere during the hardening of steel and emissions from power plants. Other pollutants – cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol, and arsenic – are also present in car and truck exhaust.

Dr. Talbott explains that these findings add to the small but growing collection of research that links environmental exposures, specifically air pollution, to ASD. Future studies must confirm these findings by measuring individual exposure to air pollutants to verify the Environmental Protection Agency’s modeled estimates.

Protecting Yourself and Your Family

While comprehensive research is needed to solidify the relationship between air pollution and autism, it’s crucial to take precautionary measures to minimize exposure to such harmful pollutants, especially if you are pregnant or have young children at home.

  1. Reduce indoor air pollution: Keep your home well-ventilated by periodically opening windows, using exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom, and regularly changing your air filters. Keep an eye out for common items that may adversely affect indoor air quality, such as cleaning products, and opt for safer, non-toxic alternatives.

  2. Limit outdoor exposure on high pollution days: Frequently check local air quality reports and limit your time spent outdoors when air pollutant levels are high, particularly for pregnant mothers and young children.

  3. Opt for greener transportation: When possible, choose public transportation, carpooling, or biking instead of driving. This not only lessens overall air pollution but also limits your exposure to pollutants released by car and truck exhaust.

  4. Enhance your diet with antioxidants: As antioxidants have been found to counteract some of the adverse effects of air pollution, focus on incorporating antioxidant-rich foods into your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

By following these guidelines, you can take action to protect your family from the dangerous pollutants connected to autism and other health issues.