Women who live in areas with polluted air are up to twice as likely to have an autistic child than those living in communities with cleaner air, according to a new study published today.
Building on two smaller, regional studies, the Harvard University research is the first to link air pollution nationwide with autism. It also is the first to suggest that baby boys may be more at risk for autism disorders when their mothers breathe polluted air during pregnancy.
Babies born in areas of the United States with high airborne levels of mercury, diesel exhaust, lead, manganese, nickel and methylene chloride were more likely to have autism than those in areas with lower pollution. The strongest links were for diesel exhaust and mercury.
“The striking similarity with our results and the previous studies adds a tremendous amount to the weight of evidence that pollutants in the air might be causing autism in children,” said Andrea Roberts, a research associate at the Harvard University School of Public Health and lead author of the new study published online in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Scientists have been trying to figure out whether a variety of environmental exposures are linked to autism, a neurological disorder diagnosed in one out of every 50 U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17.
Because the new air pollution study has some weaknesses, however, its findings, while interesting, are not conclusive, several scientists said. For example, the researchers estimated the mothers’ exposure to air pollutants based on computer models.
“It’s the same weakness as other studies [on environmental pollutants and autism]. They’re using an EPA model, which estimates what’s coming out of factories and traffic and spits out a pollution estimate,” said Amy Kalkbrenner, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who was not involved in this study.
Also pollution varies by season and “pregnant women don’t just sit inside a census tract,” said Kalkbrenner, who conducted a similar, smaller study in 2010.