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Study: Autism Risk Linked To Air Pollution


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Children exposed to very high levels of traffic-related air pollution during pregnancy and the first year of life may be at greater risk for autism, new research indicates.

The finding comes from a study of 279 kids with autism and 245 typically developing children in California. Researchers used data from the Environmental Protection Agency to estimate pollution levels at the homes where the children lived and at the addresses where their mothers resided while pregnant.

Kids living in homes with the highest levels of pollution were three times as likely to have autism as compared to children in homes with the lowest levels, according to the study published Monday online in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

“Research on the effects of exposure to pollutants and their interaction with susceptibility factors may lead to the identification of the biologic pathways that are activated in autism and to improved prevention and therapeutic strategies,” the study authors wrote. “Although additional research to replicate these findings is needed, the public health implications of these findings are large because air pollution exposure is common and may have lasting neurological effects.”

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Comments (14 Responses)

  1. Tacitus says:

    If we can afford to throw money at these pointless “studies” why can’t we buy every nonverbal autistic a speech device? For once let the money go where it is needed. We know that autism is genetic. Let’s take a break from crackpot theories that’ll never be reproduced in another study.

  2. Adriana says:

    Why are people still getting money for studies like this? These researches are really making a living out of bad science. Does anyone really believe this kind of thing anymore?

  3. Lauri Robertson says:

    That’s just great! Parents of kids who have autism really needed something else to feel guilty about! NOT!!

  4. Rain says:

    I’ve grown weary of these “Studies” after applying these nonsense conclusions to my own circumstance. I lived in a very rural area away from big cities and low pollution rates. I never had a fever either. If they’re looking for something to blame, other than genetics, try all the chemicals we spray on our food, soil and water.

  5. Brad says:

    I see a bunch of angry comments about how this study is a waste of time.

    If you actually read the research article and understood epidemiology, you would know that this is a case-control study and as such is relatively inexpensive. Further, the researchers admit the limitations of their findings and say that they can’t prove it’s causal.

    Tacitus, we know that autism has a genetic component but as with all biological systems it’s VERY likely that there are gene-environment interactions at play.

  6. Rain says:

    “I see a bunch of angry comments” No, not at all angry, concerned, yes.

    I’ve heard this same connection from UC Davis over two years ago, nothing new about these findings. But to make headlines by calling it a “cause of autism” is a cause for concern about how research money is being used. When the most obvious issues are the increased chemicals we consume via plastics, herbicides and preservatives. I don’t see anyone looking into the connection.

  7. KA101 says:

    Re Brad: uh-oh, there’s a paywall. So, reading the full article isn’t an option for the average DisScoop reader, including me.

    Based on the abstract, there certainly are a lot of measurements floating around. The charts seem to indicate that the odds of being autistic peak (around 0.6%, which I’m presuming is percentage points based on the graph going to 1.2) at ~75 ppm or so (the graph is fuzzed-up for me) of traffic pollutants. That’s interesting because the study recorded data up to 150 ppm; odds of autism apparently declined as exposure increased past 75 ppm.

    Not sure what that “All regional pollutant estimates were scaled to twice the standard deviation of the distribution for all pregnancy estimates” means, but it doesn’t help me understand the research any.

    So, not the clearest reporting either by the researchers or by DisScoop. I’m inclined to agree with Tacitus and suggest that the funding could be better used to improve quality/life for existing autistics, rather than perseverating on finding causes for autism.

  8. Kathy says:

    Thank you Brad! How can any study that increases our understanding of autism be pointless? Buying communication devices for everyone with autism might be a great short term fix, but what does it do for future generations? Of course, the results of any study will not apply to every single person, (such as Rain’s child), but to find the condition 3 times more likely in a particular group is meaningful. What if autism could be made 3 times LESS likely? I would think we could all get behind that. It is through scientific research that we have hope of understanding autism and other conditions, and learning to prevent and treat them successfully.

  9. Glen S says:

    Thank you Brad and Kathy! Phrases such as “pointless studies,” “bad science,” “guilty,” and “grown weary” betray those who would continue to maintain that autism is an identity. Tacitus and KA101 can be researched to demonstrate they are interested in increasing services without continuing our nation’s attempts to determine causation and develop meaningful treatments and successful therapies.

    They are among a vocal minority who believe autism is a new way of thinking and the rest of us put out as much money as necessary to accommodate the differences. I have stated before, Autism is not the identity of the individual it affects any more than cystic fibrosis is the identity of a person it affects.

    They also claim to speak for the majority of individuals (including children) with autism. This, too, is fallacious. After all, they can come of sites such as this and at least follow a logical discussion. But their condescension toward anyone who disagrees betrays their motives.

    They, and all who espouse Autism as an identity, are entitled to their opinions. But it like all opinions should be treated as such.

    And a lack of willingness to access further research or discover alternative sources of the information does not make their argument any more valid.

    Again, thank you Brad and Kathy for your clear and rational thinking!

  10. Tacitus says:

    Brad: I know that genetics interact with the environment. But we won’t be able to even suggest anything of that nature until we’ve gotten past the adjustment to the new existance and awareness of autism. One thing that also predicts “prevalence” of autism is access to psychiatric services. Do you think access to psychiatric services increases the actual presence of autism, or just its rate of diagnosis?

    Kathy: why so little concern for living autistics? We’re not going to magically disappear at any point, and there is no evidence that there will be a decrease in the number of people who need communication devices. We also have normal lifespans, so it’s not “short-term” thank you very much. To send so little money there is a terrible mismatch of priorities. To send so much to junk science instead is criminal.

    Glen S.–Thank you for stereotyping autistics. We really appreciate it when we’re all painted with broad strokes from the same brush, since our needs as individuals so rarely diverge from the needs of other autistics.

  11. Glen S says:

    Tacitus: Actually, at no time have I stereotyped individuals with autism. In truth, I have pinpointed two individuals who have accurately embodied a minority of individuals who believe autism is an identity. I actually have more respect for individuals with autism and their families than you.

  12. Kathy says:

    I am completely puzzled as to how you could construe my comments as reflecting “so little concern” for people with autism. Communication devices are an important support, but providing them IS a short term fix, when looked at from the perspective of future generations.

  13. KA101 says:

    Aside from the statement that our ability to follow the discussion is worth mentioning (what, autistics can’t follow a discussion??) and that our opinions, as autistics–on what autistics prefer in terms of research funding and whether an autistic identity is valid–are not entitled to the same weight as his non-autistic, non-parent-of-autistic opinion?

    Those are good enough for me to find stereotyping.

    Protip: CF is a physical issue affecting one’s lungs. Its effects, if any, on one’s thought processes are incidental to the lung-effects and probably vary between individuals w/CF.
    Autism is a neurological issue which generally affects similar types of sensory & thought processing. The exact effects vary between individual auties but are similar enough that Autreat, an autistic community I’ve participated in for the past three years, can safely rely on them to generate guidelines for its space. Conflating autism & CF is as inaccurate as conflating autism & MS, or autism & Parkinson’s.

    Short on time–may revisit later. Thanks for your consideration, in any event.

  14. Glen S says:

    Not really wanting to get into a “back and forth” with two very jaded individuals. My comments are directed at two individuals and a belief system that is false. It is not indicative of a belief other than these two individuals have quite clearly demonstrated a belief that theirs is a superior view without any regard to real or factual evidence. And they certainly hold little regard to individuals who can’t advocate for themselves or those who dedicate their lives attending to the needs of individuals who need life long care. They have also demonstrated they believe Autism is an identity and as such should “accommodated” without regard to the needs of anyone else including others with disabilities.

    As Kathy as indicated; if evidence was presented that the rates of Autism could be reduced, is that not a good development. This can only be achieved by further analysis and factual study.

    What is the old proverb? “Give someone a fish and feed them for a day. Teach someone to fish and feed them for a lifetime.”

    Yes, some accommodations are required in the short term. But, greater understanding of the actual causes and effective treatment of those underlying causes is imperative. Simply, doling out more money is neither effective nor sustainable.

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