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.

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“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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