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Traffic pollution tied to autism risk

November 28, 2012 - Updated 332 PKT
From Web Edition

Babies who are exposed to lots of traffic-related air pollution in the womb and during their first year of life are more likely to become autistic, according to a U.S. study.


The findings, which appeared in the Archives of General

Psychiatry, support previous research linking how close children

live to freeways to their risk of autism, the study's lead

author says.


"We're not saying traffic pollution causes autism, but it

may be a risk factor for it," said Heather Volk, an assistant

professor at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of

Southern California in Los Angeles.


The prevalence of autism has grown over the past few years,

and it's now estimated that the disorder - which runs a spectrum

from a profound inability to communicate and mental retardation

to milder symptoms seen in Asperger's Syndrome - affects one in

every 88 children born in the United States.


The increase in autism diagnoses has also been accompanied

by a growing body of research on the disorder. Volk's new study,

however, is one of a series of looks into how environmental

factors may be linked to a child's risk of being autistic, and

done over the past few years.


"I think it's definitely an area that's been understudied

until recently," Volk said.


While Volk and her colleagues used how close a child lived

to a freeway as a substitute for pollution exposure in their

last study, this time they looked at measures of air quality

around the children's homes.


Compared to 245 California children who were not autistic,

the researchers found that 279 autistic children were almost

twice as likely to have been exposed to the highest levels of

pollution while in the womb, and about three times as likely to

have been exposed to that level during their first year of life.


The found that children exposed to the highest amount of

"particulate matter" - a mixture of acids, metals, soil and dust

- had about a two-fold increase in autism risk.


Volk and her colleagues also saw a similar link between

autism and nitrogen dioxide, which is in car, truck and other

vehicle emissions.


"This is a risk factor that we can modify and potentially

reduce the risk for autism," wrote Geraldine Dawson, of the

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an email to

Reuters Health. Dawson wrote an editorial that accompanied the



The researchers said certain pollutants could play a role in

brain development, but that doesn't prove that being exposed to

air pollution makes children autistic. They warned that there

may be other factors that explain the association, including

indoor pollution and second-hand smoke exposure.


"There are some potential pathways that we're examining in

our current research that will be coming up next," Volk said.

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