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A new study says: Yes, air pollution may be a factor contributing to autism.  Researchers at the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles looked at 500 children in California, half of whom had autism, finding that pollution may affect the developing brain among children whose mothers lived in areas with elevated air pollution.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.  These disorders have increased 78 percent since 2002 to impact 1 in 88 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The CDC notes: “We suspect that some of this increase is due to greater awareness and better identification… However, this finding explains only part of the increase over time,…”

This new study shows that exposure to traffic-related air pollution during pregnancy and the first year of life is associated with a more than twofold risk of autism. Elevated levels of certain pollutants -nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (both “PM2.5” and “PM10” particles up to 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter) — is also associated with autism even if the mother did not live near a busy road.  The work builds on a 2010 report that found an association between the risk of autism and living within 1,000 feet of a freeway.

The links to autism from this study are not surprising since air pollution, particularly from heavy traffic , is related to a wide range of serious health impacts from increased asthma prevalence to cancer, premature deaths and cognitive impacts.  Air pollution may be just one of the many factors that contribute to autism, but it is one that we can do something about.

If you’re not convinced that air pollution in high traffic areas is a problem based on the range of serious health impacts and potential risk factors that we discuss here, consider this recent recommendation from the American College of Cardiology:  Patients with certain types of heart disease (“stable ischemic heart disease” or SIHD) should avoid exposure to increased air pollution.  The guidelines go on to say: Public policy efforts to minimize small particulate matter have the potential to reduce cardiac complications among patients with SIHD. (See at page 51-52)

For more resources on Autism, see MyAutismTeam.

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