MAY 26, 2015 1:54 PM PDT

Air Pollution and Autism

WRITTEN BY: Ilene Schneider
A study of families who reside in southwestern Pennsylvania appears to show that "exposure to fine particulate air pollution before birth and through the first two years of life may increase a child's risk of developing autism spectrum disorder," according to a study published in Environmental Research and reported by Allison Hydzik in Futurity (http://www.futurity.org/air-pollution-pregnancy-autism-928242/).
Air pollution seems to contribute to autism spectrum disorder, according to a Pennsylvania study.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. ASD includes autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. People with ASD may communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives. The estimated number of children identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to rise and is most recently estimated at 1 in 68 children. CDC also says that it costs about $17,000 more per year to care for a child with ASD, as compared to a child without ASD. Costs include health care, education, ASD-related therapy, family-coordinated services and caregiver time. Societal costs of caring for children with ASD were over $9 billion in 2011 (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html).

Evelyn Talbott, professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the Pennsylvania study, explained, "Autism spectrum disorders are lifelong conditions for which there is no cure and limited treatment options, so there is an urgent need to identify any risk factors that we could mitigate, such as pollution. Our findings reflect an association, but do not prove causality. Further investigation is needed to determine possible biological mechanisms for such an association."

Researchers studied families with and without ASD living in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties, procuring detailed information about where the mothers lived before, during and after pregnancy. The scientists used a model developed by co-author Jane Clougherty, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health, to estimate individual exposure to a type of air pollution called PM2.5, which includes particles in the air that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or 1/30th the average width of a human hair. PM2.5, which includes dust, dirt, soot and smoke, can reach deeply into the lungs and get into the bloodstream. The American Lung Association ranks Southwestern Pennsylvania among the nation's worst regions for PM2.5 levels.

Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, which funded the study, summarized, "There is increasing and compelling evidence that points to associations between Pittsburgh's poor air quality and health problems, especially those affecting our children and including issues such as autism spectrum disorder and asthma. While we recognize that further study is needed, we must remain vigilant about the need to improve our air quality and to protect the vulnerable. Our community deserves a healthy environment and clean air."
About the Author
  • Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer, a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. Her specialties include public relations, media relations, advertising, journalistic writing, editing, grant writing and corporate creativity consulting services. Prior to starting her own business in 1985, Ilene was editor of the Cleveland edition of TV Guide, associate editor of School Product News (Penton Publishing) and senior public relations representative at Beckman Instruments, Inc. She was profiled in a book, How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Writing Business and listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in Advertising and Who's Who in Media and Communications. She was the recipient of the Women in Communications, Inc. Clarion Award in advertising. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilene and her family have lived in Irvine, California, since 1978.
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