University of Pittsburgh study correlates autism with air pollution
October 23, 2014 12:27 AM
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The Environmental Protection Agency’s website says air toxics, or hazardous air pollutants, are known or suspected to cause serious health issues including reproductive or birth defects.
Evelyn Talbott, a University of Pittsburgh professor of epidemiology, led the study on the effects of air toxics on autism spectrum disorders.
By Andrew Goldstein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Little research has been done on the effects of air toxics on autism spectrum disorders, but a new University of Pittsburgh study may show why those effects could have a big impact.
Preliminary results from the study show that children with autism spectrum disorders were more likely to have been exposed to higher levels of certain air toxics during their mothers’ pregnancies and their first two years of life compared with children without the condition, according to the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health investigation. The minimal research that has been done on this correlation all came within the past decade.
“There were three small studies that came out since 2006 linking ASD, autism spectrum disorders, with air pollution,” said Evelyn Talbott, a Pitt Public Health professor of epidemiology who led the study. “I scratched my head and said, ‘Nobody’s ever looked at this, and when you don’t look at it, you don’t find anything.’ It is worth looking at it because we know so very little about what causes autism spectrum disorders.”
Children who fell into higher exposure groups of styrene and chromium were at a 1.4- to two-fold greater risk of ASD, after accounting for the age of the mother, maternal cigarette smoking, race and education. Styrene is used in plastics and paints and is a product of combustion from burning gasoline in vehicles. Air pollution containing chromium is typically the result of the industrial process from industries such as steel manufacturing.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s website says air toxics, or hazardous air pollutants, are known or suspected to cause serious health issues including reproductive or birth defects. Most air toxics are human-made, from sources such as vehicles, factories and building materials, the website said. The team used the National Air Toxics Assessment to estimate the exposure to 30 pollutants known to cause endocrine disruption and neurodevelopmental issues.
The team interviewed 217 families of children with ASD and compared the findings with information from two separate sets of comparison families of children without ASD born during the same time period in the six-county area. The children were born between 2005 and 2009 and lived in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The Heinz Endowments funded the research.
Irva Hertz-Picciotto, University of California-Davis professor and chief of the university’s Division of Environmental and Occupational Health, has conducted extensive research into environmental epidemiology with more than 200 publications on environmental exposures such as metals, pesticides, air pollutants and endocrine disruptors, their interactions with nutrition, and their influences on pregnancy, the newborn and child development. Although she has not seen the Pitt study, she said she believes a connection between air toxics and ASD is “very plausible.”
“All of these studies do suggest some kind of a link where a family who has children with autism were living usually closer to areas with higher [air toxic] measurements,” she said.
Ms. Talbott said further research is necessary because other important findings could be made.
“Where you find one thing, you might find another,” she said.
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