Air pollution linked to autism, other child health problems

New research shows that early exposure to air pollution increases risk for autism and hyperactivity in children. Photo: Wikimedia

SILVER SPRING, Md, June 22, 2013 ― Researchers have have found a link between autism and air pollution.

As if the smoggy haze that turns horizons brown is not proof enough that air pollution is a problem, many cities issue air-quality warnings that warn people to limit time outside, keep windows closed and air conditioning on to filter out the pollutants.

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The respiratory dangers of air pollution have long been known, but is has been unclear what other effects it really has, and specifically what effects it has on unborn babies and infants.

A new study published on June 18, 2013 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives links air pollution to increased autism risk. The six chemicals that were included in the study that had statistically significant correlations to occurrence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are known neurotoxins that are also known to pass from mother to baby during pregnancy.

Prenatal exposure to air pollution shows an increased risk for autism. Photo by Anna Kosali.


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The study looked at children born in all 50 states after 1987, the first year air pollution data were available, and through 2002. While researchers say that the study produced strong results showing a link between an increased rate of ASD and air pollution, specifically traffic-related pollutants, they cannot name a single factor as responsible for the increase. The data are not specific enough to pinpoint which of the pollutants is causing the link. Researchers caution further study is needed.

As of right now, researchers have yet to find a specific cause of ASD. Rather, they think it is a combination of factors that includes maternal age, genetics and environmental factors. This study identifies just one potential environmental factor, but doctors emphasize that this study does not show a cause for autism, just an increased risk.

The June 18 study is not the only one to raise questions about the effects traffic-caused air pollution can have. A study published on May 31, 2013 in the same journal looked at elemental carbon attributed to traffic (ECAT) exposure during infancy. The study took data from groups that lived less than 400m from a highway, or more than 1500m away. It found that those children with high ECAT exposure (i.e., those who lived closer to highways) during the first year of life were 70 percent more likely to be hyperactive by age seven.

According to the researchers, 11 percent of the US population lives within 100m of a four-lane highway, and nearly 40 percent of children attend school within 400m of a major highway. Photo by Downtowngal.

Combine the two studies, and it starts becoming apparent that air pollution from traffic has a much larger impact on our children than we previously thought. Factor in the increase in cars and traffic over the recent years, and it becomes alarming to think about what effects increases in traffic pollutants may produce.


Brighid Moret also writes children’s picture book reviews at Big Reads For Little Hands. Read more about parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times. To receive updates when new columns post on, follow Brighid on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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