Exposure to certain air toxics may increase a child's risk of autism, a new study suggests. (David M. Warren/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

Exposure to certain air toxics may increase a child’s risk of autism, a new study suggests. (David M. Warren/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

PITTSBURGH — A University of Pittsburgh study has found links between childhood autism spectrum disorder and exposure to higher levels of certain air toxics during pregnancy and the first two years of life.

Researchers at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health discovered links between increased levels of chromium and styrene and children with the disorder — a condition that affects one in 68 children — according to preliminary findings of their investigation that were announced this week.

Lead investigator Evelyn Talbott, professor of epidemiology at Pitt, said her team of researchers interviewed 217 families of children with ASD and compared their findings with information from two separate sets of families of children without ASD born between 2005 and 2009 within the same six-county area. The families lived in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

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A coalition of nonprofits in the greater Pittsburgh area, including the Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, PennFuture, Sustainable Pittsburgh and Women for a Healthy Environment, said the study demands a serious look by regional health officials.

“Southwestern Pennsylvania has struggled with air pollution for decades, and progress cleaning up our air has been far too slow,” said Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh. “This new abstract adds to a growing body of evidence linking exposure to toxic air pollutants with increased risks of childhood autism spectrum disorders. We owe it to our children to clean up our air once and for all.”

The study was funded by The Heinz Endowments.