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Air Pollution, Pesticide Exposure Linked To Autism

ByMadeline Schmitz
Updated
March 2, 2017
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Image: Shutterstock/The Bump

The cause of autism isn’t really known — it could be a mix of things like genes, medications and environmental factors. Even your pregnancy diet may have an effect on your baby’s chances of being born with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that a pregnant woman’s exposure to fine particulate air pollution could double her risk of having a baby with autism.

What types of air pollution are we talking? Anything involving acids, chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles smaller than 2.5 microns.The small size means the particles can more easily pass through your nose and throat and enter your lungs. Researchers found the correlation after tracking over 116,000 women across all 50 states. And it’s not just urban moms who are at risk.

“More urbanized areas tend to have higher levels [of pollution] because of traffic, but rural areas can have higher levels than one might think because regionally transported components can come from far away,” senior study author Marc Weisskopf, a professor at Harvard, told Fox News. The good news? While the highest risk occurs during the third trimester, exposure to pollution before or after pregnancy isn’t linked to autism. And neither are larger polluting particles.

Another study, conducted at UC Davis by Irva Hertz-Piccotto, suggests that commercial pesticide spraying should be added to the laundry list of things that increase the chance of autism. The professor of epidemiology compared recorded pesticide sprayings against pregnant women’s home addresses, and found that, if the pesticide was an organophosphate (a compound that exists mostly in commercial-grade sprays), the women showed a 60 percent higher risk of having a baby with autism.

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Commercial-grade insecticides are way more toxic than the ones you spray in your backyard to protect your tomatoes from bugs or legs from mosquitoes; they can impair the growth of brain structures in infants by affecting the nervous system.

And one other thing, just to make ourselves clear — this study isn’t definitive proof that pesticides cause autism. The study was an imperfect science, as Hertz-Piccotto didn’t know a lot of things about the people he was studying (like age, general health, or even whether the mothers were at home when the pesticides were sprayed). What the study does contribute, however, is more data that links pesticide exposure to developmental problems in fetuses. Data like this has been collected for years, and this study assists experts who condemn the use of pesticides (even insect repellant) while you’re pregnant.

Bottom line? Scientists still aren’t 100 percent sure what causes autism, but they’re getting closer to the answer every day.

To reduce your exposure to pesticides while pregnant, make sure to wash all of your produce before eating it, or even grow your own produce if you can. In addition, having a “no shoes” policy in your home can help decrease the amount of pesticides you’re exposed to — you never know where peoples’ feet have been!

 Do you have any other tips for avoiding exposure to harmful chemicals while pregnant?

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