Autism and Air Quality: Is there a connection?

We first heard about a possible link between air pollution and autism in the first issue of JAMA Psychiatry in 2013 when they published a new study linking traffic-related air pollution with autism.

Since then, the evidence has been piling up.

For many years, both parents of children on the autism spectrum and parents of neurotypical children have been mystified by the prevalence of autism today and the lack of information about its cause. Is our air quality the culprit?

The JAMA study was done in California and involved both children with autism and a control group of neurotypical children. The mother’s address during gestation and the first year of life was used to determine exposure to traffic-related air pollution before birth and until age one. Their conclusion: “Exposure to traffic-related air pollution, nitrogen dioxide, [particles greater than 2.5microns] and [particles greater than 10 microns] during pregnancy and during the first year of life was associated with autism.”

Recently, the University of Rochester researchers showed that mice exposed to air pollution early in life showed “enlargement of part of the brain that is seen in humans who have autism and schizophrenia.” University of Rochester

Researchers at Harvard University have found that pregnant women breathing pollution from car exhaust or smokestacks have twice the risk of giving birth to a child who falls on the autism spectrum. Exposure to particles during the third trimester seems to be the main culprit. ‘”We found an association that was specific to pregnancy and especially to the third trimester, identifying a window, which might shed a light on processes that are happening that can lead to autism,” said Marc Weisskopf, the report’s senior author and associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.’ NBC News

In our research, we often discover environmental factors which are important to the healthy development of children, whether exposure to volatile organic compounds, tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide, radon, bacteria, mold spores, or allergens, all of which affect our air quality. We join with scientists all over the country in hoping that further study clarifies the links between autism and air quality so that we can reduce exposure to dangerous substances and increase healthy outcomes for all of our children.