Study shows link between pollution, autism

Posted at 10:12 PM, Jun 18, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-19 00:12:09-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah has the highest rate of autism spectrum disorders in the country, as 1 in 47 children have been diagnosed with the disorder. Tuesday, a national study released by the Harvard School of Public Health showed a link between air pollution and ASD.

According to researchers, living in an area with high levels of pollution may increase a woman’s chances of having a child with the disorder.

Dr. Brian Moench, President of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said people need to take air pollution more seriously.

“Air pollution should be thought of the same way that we think of the health consequences of cigarette smoke,” he said. "Higher rates of autism amongst children who were born to women that had to breathe more air pollution, that’s a devastating, life altering consequence."

Researchers looked at more than 116,000 women to see if they were exposed to pollution during pregnancy. They focused on 325 women who had a child with autism and 22,000 women who had children without. Using air pollution data, they estimated the levels of pollutants at the time and place of each child’s birth.

The results showed that women living in areas with the highest levels of diesel or mercury in the air were twice as likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder, compared to those living in areas with the lowest level.

Moench said the findings only add to the problems stemming from pollution.

“It fits into the overall body of research work that establishes that air pollution is actually very toxic to the development of the human brain at the embryonic developmental stage,” he said.

FOX 13 spoke with Utah’s Division of Air Quality to see what the levels of the pollutants listed in the study are like in the state. According to director Bryce Bird, mercury levels remain a problem in Utah’s waters, but diesel levels have decreased.

He said: “Back in the nineties to early 2000’s, certainly in this area along with other areas in the country, there were certainly higher concentrations then than there are now. So, we’ve made some progress.”

But not enough to keep up with the harmful side effects, according to Moench.

“This is a public health emergency, and it appears as though here’s another powerful study to suggest air pollution is having an impact here,” Moench said. “If this won’t make us take this seriously, I shudder to think what would. What would it take?”