Air Pollution Linked to Increased Autism Risk

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When it comes to air pollution, the big policy discussions seem to be stuck on whether or not it contributes to climate change. For some reason, we rarely hear politicians or pundits mention of the effect air pollution has on human health anymore. And that’s a problem.

Because it turns out that not only is outdoor air pollution tied to a host of health problems, like heart disease, asthma, allergies, cancer, and even early death… But exposure to pollution during pregnancy may even double a child’s risk of autism. With the numbers now showing that autism affects as many as 1 in 50 US children, exposure to pollutants may well qualify as a public health crisis.

The new findings come from a Harvard School of Public Health study. The researchers looked at an ongoing study of more than 116,000 women across the country, and compared the dates of the women’s pregnancies to their estimated level of exposure to various environmental pollutants based on their location. The environmental data comes from the EPA.

What they found was shocking — children whose mothers lived in the 20% of locations with the highest levels of diesel particulates or mercury in the air had double the autism rate of those from the 20% least-polluted locations. For mothers living in areas with high levels of lead, manganese, and methlyene chloride the risk of autism jumped to 50%.

While the researchers admit they can’t know for certain exactly which pollutants the mothers in the study were exposed to, the geographical variation in autism rates is startling. According to an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, even the study authors didn’t expect to see such clear results. When they first started the study, they weren’t weren’t sure if they’d find any significant correlation at all.

It’s important to note that this study doesn’t prove that pollution causes autism — it’s likely there are a number of other contributing factors at play. In fact, since there’s little a woman can do to avoid air pollution, experts are recommending that mothers-to-be focus on the measures they can easily take to ensure a healthy pregnancy, like taking prenatal vitamins, avoiding cigarette smoke, and maintaining a healthy weight.

What this study does bring into sharp relief the fact that the current debate on climate change and pollution is broken. Instead of focusing on whether or not cutting pollution will hurt big corporations or whether climate change even exists, we need to start taking a serious look at the very real effects pollution has on human health.

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