As anyone in or involved with the autism community knows, research around environmental triggers is hot. The latest study out of University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, published in Environmental Research, shows that exposure to fine particulate air pollution during pregnancy and through the first two years of a child’s life may be associated with an increased risk of a child developing autism spectrum disorder. This is an association, not a cause.
As a mom who lived through two pregnancies in New York City (hello, fine particulate air pollution), I don’t entirely know what to make of this. My older daughter’s first two years were spent in the same place — several blocks from the West Side Highway. When my younger daughter was 6 months old, we moved to the country where I assumed the air was cleaner. That’s not the main reason we left my hometown, but the prospect of cleaner air was certainly on my mind. As I write this I’m sitting outside. Fresh, sweet scents are wafting all around in the breeze. But it turns out our new county has some pretty bad air pollution, too. Go figure.
Autism now affects one in 68 children, but not my daughters. Not everyone living in an area with air pollution can pick up and move. There are endless things to consider when uprooting a family, especially jobs and finances. Air pollution is rarely top of the list of why people move when pregnant and during the early years of childhood. Space, jobs, and being closer to relatives are more standard motivating factors.
This University of Pittsburgh study involved children in southwestern Pennsylvania, looking at their exposure to a type of air pollution called PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter). A write up of the study in Science Daily places this in context by saying that’s 1/30th the average width of a human hair and can include dust, dirt, soot and smoke: “Because of its small size, PM2.5 can reach deeply into the lungs and get into the blood stream. Southwestern Pennsylvania has consistently ranked among the nation’s worst regions for PM2.5 levels, according to data collected by the American Lung Association.” Kids with higher exposure to PM2.5 particles were at a greater risk for autism, even after taking into account other autism-related risk factors.
We live in a strange moment where it is up to parents to recognize and mitigate risk to all kinds of environmental threats in an effort to safeguard our children — in utero and out. It’s one thing for a family to choose organic food to avoid potential harm in pesticide residues, or even to switch their food storage containers to glass to avoid questionable chemicals in plastic. But how is the average family supposed to mitigate pollution? Yes, families can reduce indoor air pollutants — conventional cleaning products, paint and other renovation-related products, materials that off-gas like vinyl shower curtains and pressed wood or particleboard, fragrance in things like candles and personal care products, fires in fireplaces, and so on. But most of us have a steep learning curve to be able to make those changes. Besides, as individuals, we have so much less control over the air we breathe outside.
For general air pollution, we need laws. Stringent ones. It simply cannot be up to parents to identify and mitigate risk to things like air pollution. Locating and then covering the light sockets in our own homes, sure. We’re collectively on it. But for air pollutants parents of all children, autistic or not, need to vote well and vote often. We need real leadership. And we need it yesterday.