Study finds traffic pollution tied to autism risk

Andrew M. Seaman

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, suggests a new study.

The findings support previous research linking how close children live to freeways with their risk of autism, according to the study's lead author.

"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.

Autism is a spectrum of disorders ranging from a profound inability to communicate and mental retardation to milder symptoms seen in Asperger's syndrome.

The prevalence of autism has grown over the past few years. It's now estimated that the disorder affects one in every 88 children born in the United States, which is a 25 percent increase from a 2006 estimate.

The increase in autism diagnoses has also been accompanied by a growing body of research on the disorder.

Including Volk's new study, there are three articles on autism in Monday's issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

"A decade ago, the journal published about the same number of autism articles per year," wrote Geraldine Dawson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an editorial accompanying the studies.

The two other reports in the current issue deal with ways to image a person's brain to look for physical differences between an autistic and non-autistic brain.

According to Dawson, who is also chief science officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, the number of studies on autism began to grow around 2000. Most studies, she says, deal with the biology of the disease.


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, done over the past few years.

"I think it's definitely an area that's been understudied until recently," Volk told Reuters Health.

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