Air Pollution and Autism Connected in Pitt Research

  • To demonstrate the visual impact of varying air quality, the Breathe Project took these photos from above the Allegheny River on a morning when the region's air quality was relatively good (September 10, 2012, left) and when it was worse (September 11, 2012, right). Photo: Courtesy Breathe Project

October 24, 2014

Researchers think they’ve found a link between prenatal and early childhood exposure to air pollution and autism. The findings, by the University of Pittsburgh, are considered preliminary.

Principal investigator Evelyn Talbott’s team interviewed more than 200 families with children on the autism spectrum in western Pennsylvania.

Autism diagnoses have risen sharply, about eight-fold in 20 years. Talbott says research into other potential causes, like genetics, is inconclusive. So, Pitt started looking at environmental factors, like air pollution from industry and transportation.

“There are more and more cars on the road,” Talbott says. “There are many chemicals out there that we should look at.”

Talbott’s team evaluated kids exposed to certain pollutants in utero to up to two years of age. They found autism levels up to twice as high as in children without those exposures. The researchers honed in on pollutants known to disrupt children’s endocrine systems and neurological development.

The researchers report links between autism and high levels of chromium, used in industrial processes like power production and steelmaking, and styrene, a byproduct of vehicles burning gasoline.

“Styrene is used in plastics—Styrofoam, resin, coatings in paint and in building materials,” Talbott says.

The federal government collects data on how much of these pollutants are in the air. Talbott says those estimates were useful in starting to look at the link with autism.

“But you really need to find out what is at the level of a residence, of a person’s home," Talbott says. "So I think that’s really the next step, to take measurements on different days of the week, and different times of the day, and come up with a real-time exposure for people.”

The Pitt study builds on three others that looked at children in North Carolina and West Virginia, California, and the U.S., and have similar results.

“Over the past ten years, we have been seeing an increasing rate of autism not only in the Pittsburgh area, but all over the world, and our concern has been that this increase cannot be strictly genetic in origin,” says Dr. Scott Faber, Neurodevelopmental Pediatrician at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh. “These findings add to a growing body of evidence giving us great concern that pollution occurring in our region is increasing the risk of children developing neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Talbott is submitting the findings to fellow epidemiologists for peer review. She says The University of Pittsburgh is publicizing it early because its funder, the Heinz Endowments, thought it required quick public attention. Eds. Note: The Heinz Endowments provides major financial support to The Allegheny Front. 

Inset photo of Evelyn Talbott courtesy of University of Pittsburgh.