Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy could put your baby at an increased risk of developing autism
“These findings are striking because they suggest that cumulative exposures over the course of the pregnancy may be important, as opposed to any individual period during the pregnancy,” said study author Evelyn Talbott, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh in the US.
But more research would be necessary to understand how pollution might affect autism risk, she said.
The autism spectrum disorder and air pollution association
Autism spectrum disorder — a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant communication and social challenges — affects one in 68 children in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The research involved 443 children living in six counties in southwestern Pennsylvania in the US, about half of whom had autism. Researchers compared air pollution exposure — based on all addresses where the mothers reported living — before and during their mothers’ pregnancy and in the children’s first two years of life.
The researchers adjusted their calculations to account for each mother’s age, education and race, and whether she smoked.
The type of pollution measured was fine-particle air pollution, included in smog. It’s composed of small particles from car exhaust or other forms of burning wood, coal and other fossil fuels that you can inhale deep into your lungs, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The American Lung Association ranks southwestern Pennsylvania among the nation’s worst regions for this type of pollution.
The children’s odds of having autism were 45% greater if they were exposed to the highest levels at age two, the study found. Their odds were 51% greater if the highest exposure occurred from three months before pregnancy through the child’s second year.
The journal Environmental Research published these new findings.
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Researchers need to conduct further to research to determine HOW air pollution could cause autism
It’s not clear, however, how significant the findings are overall, since the study cannot show cause and effect between air pollution and autism, said Dr Alyson Gutman, an attending physician in developmental and behavioural paediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York City.
“We know that there are several interacting factors that likely contribute to the cause of autism spectrum disorders,” Gutman said. Those factors include genetics, environmental risk factors and medical risk factors, such as a history of prematurity, she said.
“Exposure to pollutants may be a contributing factor,” she said. “However, it is difficult to determine the significance of this risk factor.”
Dr Glen Elliott, chief psychiatrist and medical director of Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto, California in the US, where he specialises in autism, expressed scepticism about the study’s conclusions.
“I’m stunned that the editors permitted the authors to make the claims they did,” he said. He noted that the only single point in time when the data was statistically significant was when the children were two years old.
“The authors offer no theoretical basis for how particulate matter that the mother breathes might affect the child’s development,” Elliott said. “They also didn’t add the much-needed caution that correlation does not equal causation, even if their data were much stronger than it is.”
If you’re concerned about the air pollution you’re exposed to, chat to your doctor about it
If parents are concerned about their possible exposure to air pollution, they should discuss their concerns with their doctors, Gutman said.
People can also check on their local air quality on various websites and purchase air filters that target smaller particles and pollutants within the home, said Talbott.
“They can also write to lawmakers to put pressure on them to make policies that reduce air pollution and harmful emissions,” Talbott said. “More work needs to be conducted both in other geographic areas of the United States as well as in other countries to further our understanding of this association.”