Pregnancy Pollution Exposure Linked to Increased Risk of Autism in Kids

Environmental pollution may play a role in the development of autism among children, according to the findings of new research.  

In a study published online this week in the medical journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers indicate that pregnant women who were exposed to different types of pollution, including diesel particulates, lead, manganese, mercury and methyl chloride, were twice as likely to give birth to a child who would develop autism.

Air pollution contains toxins that are known to effect neurological functioning and can greatly impact a fetus’ development.

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The researchers examined data involving more than 100,000 nurses from the Nurses Health Study II, a study which has conducted ongoing research since 1989. Researchers focused on 325 women in that study who had children who developed autism and 22,000 children who did not have autism.

Andrea Roverts and her team of researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health then examined air pollution data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine the women’s exposure to the various pollutants while pregnant.

The results revealed that women living in locations with the highest levels of diesel or mercury pollution were twice as likely to have children with autism, compared to the women who lived in the areas with the lowest levels of pollution.

Children born to women living in areas with higher levels of lead, manganese, methylene chloride and combined metal pollutants had a 50 percent higher risk of having autism, again compared to children born to women living in areas with lower percentages of those pollutions.

Researchers also found that the link between pollution and autism was much stronger for boys than for girls. Previous studies have found an association between high levels of pollution and the development of autism in children, however those were limited to only a few geographical locations. This is the first national study on this scale to also find the link.

The authors of the study say they hope their findings will prompt others to focus on the association between pollution exposure to a fetus in utero to provide “stronger evidence that specific pollutants increase risk of autism.”

“A better understanding of this can help to develop interventions to reduce pregnant women’s exposure to these pollutants,” concluded the researchers.


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