Women in the U.S. exposed to high levels of air pollution while pregnant were up to twice as likely to have a child with autism as women who lived in areas with low pollution, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health. It is the first large national study to examine links between autism and air pollution across the U.S…
Exposure to diesel particulates, lead, manganese, mercury, methylene chloride and other pollutants are known to affect brain function and to affect the developing baby. Two previous studies found associations between exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and autism in children, but those studies looked at data in just three locations in the U.S.
The researchers examined data from Nurses’ Health Study II, a long-term study based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital involving 116,430 nurses that began in 1989. Among that group, the authors studied 325 women who had a child with autism and 22,000 women who had a child without the disorder. They looked at associations between autism and levels of pollutants at the time and place of birth. They used air pollution data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to estimate women’s exposure to pollutants while pregnant. They also adjusted for the influence of factors such as income, education, and smoking during pregnancy.
The results showed that women who lived in the 20% of locations with the highest levels of diesel particulates or mercury in the air were twice as likely to have a child with autism as those who lived in the 20% of areas with the lowest levels.
Other types of air pollution—lead, manganese, methylene chloride, and combined metal exposure—were associated with higher autism risk as well. Women who lived in the 20% of locations with the highest levels of these pollutants were about 50% more likely to have a child with autism than those who lived in the 20% of areas with the lowest concentrations.
Most pollutants were associated with autism more strongly in boys than girls. However, since there were few girls with autism in the study, the authors said this finding should be examined further.
This doesn’t suggest the association means air pollution causes autism directly. There is a contributory link. Research samples from both mothers and babies will be analyzed over time to see exactly which chemicals are involved.
Though air pollution has diminished since the Clean Air Act there is an enormous task remaining to get to truly healthful air chemistry. Know-nothings, Tea Party-types and other butt-kissers of the Oil Patch Boys will try their darndest to impede or roll back measures taken. Even though they offer the potential for a longer healthier life for their own kids and grandkids.