New Evidence Supports the Link between Air Toxins and ASD

According to a recent investigation, many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been exposed to unusually high levels of air toxins during their mother’s pregnancy and in their first two years of life. With the diagnosis rate for autism disorders reaching an all-time high in the United States, these findings are critical in helping understand some of the potential reasons for the development of the disorder. This new study, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, is being presented today at the American Association for Aerosol Research.

Evelyn Talbott, professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health and principal investigator of the study, states, “Autism spectrum disorders are a major public health problem, and their prevalence has increased dramatically”. She continues, “The causes of autism are poorly understood. Very few studies have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors. Our analysis is an addition to the small but growing body of research that considers air toxins to be a risk factor for ASD.”

The team of researchers analyzed families with and without ASD within southwest Pennsylvania. Among the children with autism disorder, the researchers found links to increased levels of both chromium and styrene. Autism currently affects many families in the Pittsburgh region, reinforcing the idea that air quality is vital towards the health of young children. Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments which funded the study, states, “Our aspirations for truly becoming the most livable city cannot be realized if our children’s health is threatened by dangerous levels of air toxins. Addressing this issue needs to remain one of our nation’s top priorities.”

For the study, Talbott and her colleagues interviewed 217 families of children with ASD, comparing these findings with information collected from two sets of comparison families of children without ASD, who were born during the same time period and within the six-county area.  According to Talbott, “one of the strengths of the study was the ability to have two types of controls. [They] provided a comparison of representative air toxins in neighborhoods of children with and without ASD.” The research team used the National Air Toxins Assessment (NATA) to estimate the exposure of 30 different pollutants known to cause neurodevelopmental issues.

Researchers noticed that children who fell into high exposure groups for styrene and chromium were at a two-fold greater risk of ASD. Other toxins that were found to be associated with ASD risk are cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic. Styrene is used most commonly in the production of plastic and paint. It is also within the combustion of burning gasoline in vehicles. Air pollution containing chromium is typically a result of industrial processes such as the hardening of steel, and it can also come from power plants.

“The next step [of this study] will be confirming our findings with [additional research] that measures the specific exposure to air pollutants at an individual level to verify these EPA-modeled estimates,” Talbott states. For now, these results provide strong evidence that environmental exposure can in fact play a strong part in the development of ASD.

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