Study Finds Connection Between Autism and Air Pollution

Autism affects how the brain works. Image by the National Institutes of Health.

Autism affects how the brain works. Image by the National Institutes of Health.

Andrea Roberts, PhD., on the Study’s Findings

Decoded Science asked Dr. Roberts what was considered “high air pollution,” and she responded,

“For each pollutant, we divided the women in our study into 5 groups – the 20% with the lowest air pollutant concentration, next 20%, and so on until we had the 20% with the highest air concentration. We compared each group with the 20% of women who lived in the cleanest area (the reference group). We found that, depending on the pollutant, 20% to 60% of women who lived in higher pollution areas while pregnant had significantly greater risk of having a child with an autism spectrum disorder.”

With this in mind, pregnancy in an area of high pollution appears worrisome. Is there anything women can do to prevent exposure? Dr. Roberts explained,

“Although it’s difficult to avoid air pollution – it is all around us — women who are pregnant can do other things to help their babies develop healthily. Avoiding cigarette smoke, taking prenatal vitamins, and eating a diet with a lot of healthy fats – like those found in nuts and low-mercury fish — are all good for the baby and may also reduce risk of autism. It is also probably a good idea to try to maintain a healthy weight while pregnant – gestational diabetes is a risk factor for having a child with autism, and to avoid using pesticides and other strong chemicals in or around the home.”

We also discussed whether Dr. Roberts had any speculations as to why this occurred in boys more than girls. She offered,

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“Boys in general are much more likely than girls to have autism, so there may be factors that protect girls. It is possible that pollutants could be a final factor that pushes boys across a threshold into actual autism if they start at a higher risk than girls. However, it is important to keep in mind that we had only 47 girls with autism in our study, so this finding should be considered very preliminary.”

Autism and Air Pollution

There is no cure for autism spectrum disorders, though there are early intervention programs that help a person reach developmental milestones throughout their life. Although researchers still have work to do to discover why ASDs occur, we are getting closer every day to finding the answers everyone has been waiting for.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data and statistics. (2012). Accessed June 20, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorders. (2012). Accessed June 20, 2013.

Roberts, A., Lyall, K., Hart, J., et al. “Perinatal air pollutant exposures and autism spectrum disorder in the children of Nurses’ Health Study II participants.” (2013). Environmental Health Perspectives. Accessed June 20, 2013.

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