Is Air Pollution Making Children Autistic?

©. Soloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock

Scientists keep finding links between chemicals in the air and the neurological condition.

The world, or at least my Facebook feed, is full of anti-vaxxers, many of whom think vaccines cause autism. This theory hasn't gained much of a foothold in the medical community, but increasing evidence is pointing toward a different potential cause in the uptick in autism: air pollution.

"Air pollution could contribute to autism," Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator and director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard, told me over the phone. "There’s clearly an association."

A new report aggregating expert analysis and scientific literature found air pollution is likely contributing to a number of chronic diseases in children, including autism.

"Particulate matter is a really really serious concern," McCarthy said. "It really wasn’t intended to be breathed in."

In one recent study, scientists from Monash University in Australia looked at over a thousand Chinese children under the age of three. The scientists found children exposed to industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust and other kinds of outdoor pollution "increased the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by up to 78%."

Pollution affects adults, but children are particularly susceptible.

"The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment and several studies have suggested this could impact brain function and the immune system," explained Yuming Guo, an Australian environmental epidemiology professor. "These effects could explain the strong link we found between exposure to air pollutants and ASD, but further research is needed to explore the associations between air pollution and mental health more broadly."

This study is no anomaly. Other studies have also found that fetuses and recently born babies exposed to air pollution are more likely to develop autism.

"In the last decade, several studies have examined the association between perinatal exposure to ambient air pollution and risk of autism spectrum disorder," explained one Harvard study. "These studies have largely been consistent, with associations seen with different aspects of air pollution, including hazardous air toxics, ozone, particulate and traffic-related pollution."

The scientists concluded that this link is probably no coincidence.

"Given the general consistency of findings across studies and the exposure-window-specific associations recently reported, the overall evidence for a causal association between air pollution and ASD is increasingly compelling," the study continued.

So there's good reason to suspect companies really may be pumping dangerous chemicals into children and causing autism in the process.