Pitt asks parents to participate in effort to identify autism risk factors

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More children than ever before are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

In the 1970s and '80s, roughly one of every 2,000 children had a diagnosed form of autism. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the rate of autism in the U.S. at 1 in 88 children.

To help identify environmental and other factors that may put children at risk, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are conducting a study and are looking for parents to participate. Parents of children born between 2006 and 2009 who have a confirmed diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder who live in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington or Westmoreland counties are eligible to participate.

Families who elect to take part in the research study will be asked to complete a 45-minute telephone interview. Any information provided will be kept confidential. Research study participants will receive $20.

The deadline for participation is Dec. 15. For information: 412-624-3074 or eot1@pitt.edu.

This multiyear study began in 2010 on the heels of one that was conducted in California. The results of that study, which were published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Epidemiology, suggested that research should shift from genetics to the chemicals and infectious microbes in the environment.

Funding for the project comes from the Heinz Endowments, which asked researchers to focus on this area because of its unique legacy of industry.

"Some of the hazardous pollutants that are prevalent [on the West Coast] are not here, so it makes sense to make a balanced assessment on the East Coast," said LuAnn Brink, investigator and senior research specialist for the department of epidemiology at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health. "It's a continuing, growing problem and the time to look at this and to look at many different factors is now."

She and the research team, which is being led by Evelyn Talbott, principal investigator and professor in the department of epidemiology at Pitt, are looking at many factors, including water sources; proximity to heavily traveled roads, traffic and industry; and exposure to pesticides, coal-fired power plants, diesel, fossil fuel, carbon emissions and other air toxins.

A large part of the study, Ms. Talbott said, is linking the residential history of the mother before, during and after her child was born and up to 2 years of age with air monitoring networks throughout each county.

In addition, Ms. Brink said, the researchers are looking at risk factors during pregnancy, complications during delivery, medication use, medical history, occupations of the mother and father, personal risk factors and any illnesses during the child's first two years of life or hospitalizations.

All results from the study will be compared with children living in the area who do not have autism.

Ms. Talbott said that although there are very few risk factors for autism, its rising prevalence cannot be ignored and this study is the first step in seeing what might be some of the increased risks that need to be investigated further.

"We feel that something's going on now that wasn't going on 30 years ago," she said. "As a society, we live in a sea of chemicals and that's an acceptable risk for our society, but it could very well be that there is something that is helping to cause this increase."

Information: www.childhoodautism.pitt.edu.

Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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