Memo to Anti-Vaxxer Jenny McCarthy: Research Points to a Very Different Culprit for Autism

Personal Health

Could autism be in the air we breathe? A growing body of research suggests that the answer could be yes, despite dangerous misinformation spread by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, who have helped convince many Americans that vaccines are to blame for autism even though there is a glaring lack of scientific support for this theory.

There are many unanswered questions about causes, but researchers are getting closer to understanding how autism develops. Genetics seems to play a role, and so do environmental factors, but not vaccines, which have been repeatedly shown to be unconnected.

New information suggests that air toxins may have a significant impact on autism spectrum disorders. In preliminary results, a University of Pittsburgh study shows that children suffering from autism were more likely to have been exposed to higher levels of certain air toxins during their mothers’ pregnancies and their first two years of life compared with children who weren't. According to the research so far, the correlation has appeared over the past decade. During pregnancy, fetuses are particuarly sensitive to toxins the mother is exposed to, and their brains can develop abnormalities in synaptic connections, which is a possible cause of autism.

Study leader Evelyn Talbott, a Pitt Public Health professor of epidemiology, explained why researchers decided to investigate the connection between autism and pollution: “There were three small studies that came out since 2006 linking ASD, autism spectrum disorders, with air pollution...I scratched my head and said, ‘Nobody’s ever looked at this, and when you don’t look at it, you don’t find anything.’ It is worth looking at it because we know so very little about what causes autism spectrum disorders.”

The children exposed to two substances were up to twice as likely as others to develop autism spectrum disorders. The first is styrene, which is used in plastics, paints and is also a product of gasoline combustion in automobiles. The second, chromium, is produced during the processes used in steel manufacturing and other industries.

This University of Pittsburgh study follows other recent studies which have found possible connections between air pollution and autism, as well as other ailments of the brain. A study by the University of Rochester Medical Center recently showed how exposure to air pollution early in life altered the brains of mice in ways that are linked to autism and schizophrenia in humans.

For a long time, scientists focused on the lungs as the main site of damage to the human body from air pollution. But now researchers are shifting attention to the brain. Some research, such as a recent Harvard University study, has indicated that male fetuses may be more vulnerable to air pollution in the womb than females.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more children than ever before are being diagnosed with autism — as many as one in 88. If air pollution is partly to blame, clearly we need stricter regulation of airborne toxins. Research by economist James K. Boyce of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has shown that air pollution disproportionately impacts the poor and minorities, and that the inequality of exposure to air pollution is even more glaring than income inequality. Air pollution is not only a matter of health, but of social and economic equality in America.

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