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Environment & Energy

Autism Linked to Air Pollution Exposure

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh think they have found a link between prenatal and early life exposure to air pollution and autism.  The study focused on 217 families with children on the autism spectrum. 

Autism now affects one in 68 children in America.  That is up nearly 800 percent in the last 20 years. Principal investigator Evelyn Talbott said her research found exposure to increased levels of chromium and styrene increased the risk of autism by 1.4 to two times. 

The study compared the families with autistic children to a pair of control groups in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland Counties.  All of the children were born between 2005 and 2009.

“Despite its serious social impact, the causes of autism are poorly understood,” said Talbott. “Very few studies of autism have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors.”

The study factored out risks such as the age of the mother, maternal cigarette smoking, race and education.  It measured exposure to 30 pollutants known to cause endocrine disruption or neurodevelopmental issues.

Along with styrene and chromium, a smaller increased risk of autism was linked to cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic. Talbott notes that many of the compounds are found in the same air samples so further study is needed.

In her report Talbott noted styrene is used in the production of plastics and paints, and results from the combustion of gasoline in vehicles. Chromium is a heavy metal, which typically is the result of industrial processes and is often emitted from power plants. Cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic are all used in various industries or can be found in vehicle exhaust.