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Study Shows Air Pollution Raises Risk of Autism

Women who live in areas with polluted air are up to twice as likely to have an autistic child than those living in communities with cleaner air.  That’s according to a new national study from Harvard University published online in Environmental Health Perspectives. KUER’s Andrea Smardon reports on what this might mean for Utah - which has the highest autism rates in the country, and occasionally the worst air quality.

The new study is based on 325 mothers from around the country, who gave birth after 1987 to a child later diagnosed with autism. The research – which also uses data from two smaller, regional studies - is the first to link air pollution nationwide with autism.  It shows that babies born in areas with high airborne levels of toxins like mercury and diesel exhaust were more likely to have autism than those in areas with lower pollution. But the lead author Andrea Roberts cautions that the study is limited.  It shows only an association based on data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, but she can’t say that a particular pollutant actually caused the autism risk.

“We don’t actually know the individual women - how much they actually breathed in,” Roberts says. “So we need much better measures of how much each woman has in her body of these toxic chemicals. Then I think we can have much stronger evidence whether one of them in particular is dangerous and whether women should be trying to protect themselves from that particular pollutant.”

University of Utah Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and air quality advocate Michelle Hofmann says the study isn’t conclusive enough to influence the state’s health or environmental policies, but she says it provides a reason to do more study.

“I really encourage people to use studies like this as a stepping stone to doing even more sophisticated local work that helps us better understand what’s going on here,” Hofmann says. “I think once we have local data that we will be able to impact some policy change that can hopefully have endpoints where we’re improving health outcomes. It’s a good call to action.”

Hofmann says more localized measurements of pollutants – along with study of toxins present in pregnant women’s bodies - could help researchers come up with actionable information.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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