Association of fine particulate air pollution with autistim

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability affecting communication, social interaction and behaviour.  It is a spectrum of conditions; some live relatively independent lives while others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need specialised lifelong support. People with autism may also experience over-or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. About 1 % of the world population has autism spectrum disorder.

Many causes of autism have been proposed, but proper understanding of the causes of autism is not complete yet. According to research, genetic factors predominate, however the heritability of autism is complex, and the responsible genes are still not identified.

A recent U.S.-wide study performed by a group of researchers from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) shows that exposure of expecting mothers, specifically at their third trimester, to high levels of fine particulate matter may enhance the risk of having an autistic child by two fold as compared to the mothers living in areas with low particulate matter. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk, researchers say.

The study population included offspring of participants living in all over 50 states in Nurses’ Health Study II, a cohort of more than 116,000 female U.S. nurses begun in 1989. The researchers collected data on where participants lived during their pregnancies as well as data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other sources on levels of fine particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5), particles of 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, in locations across the U.S. They identified 245 children who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a control group of 1,522 children without ASD during the time period studied.

The team explored the association between autism and exposure to PM2.5 before, during, and after pregnancy. They also calculated exposure to PM2.5 during each pregnancy trimester. They found that exposure to PM2.5 during pregnancy was significantly associated with autism, but not before or after. Moreover the third trimester specifically was significantly associated with an increased risk. Little association was detected between air pollution from larger-sized particles (PM10-2.5) and autism.

This study would help us to detect and pursue the origins of autism spectrum disorders. Moreover based on this study possible preventative measures could be taken.

Further reading:

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Particulate Matter Air Pollution before, during, and after Pregnancy: A Nested Case–Control Analysis within the Nurses’ Health Study II Cohort; Raanan Raz, Andrea L. Roberts, Kristen Lyall, Jaime E. Hart, Allan C. Just, Francine Laden, and Marc G. Weisskopf Environ Health Perspect; DOI:10.1289/ehp.1408133.

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Arunima Maiti

Arunima Maiti

Biomedical scientist with special interest in reproductive biology.

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