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Autism Linked To Pollution? Researchers Say Yes

Is where you live connected to autism? Could be, researchers say, if there's a lot of pollution.

Utah has high autism rates. Several Utah cities have also been named some of the most polluted in the country. In fact, Salt Lake County has the second-highest amount of toxic chemical releases in the country, according to the EPA’s TRI database. Nearby Tooele is ranked 64th. Additionally, a study released last month shows Utah’s autism rate among 8-year-olds doubled from 2002 to 2008. The latest report shows 1 in 77 have the disorder. Although, in the interest of accuracy, it is up for debate whether autism is on the rise or we’re just getting better at diagnosing it. Similarly, Utah has more children than many other states.

Still, are the two issues related? Could autism and pollution be linked?

University of Utah researchers say the question deserves more study. Early studies show children with autism and other intellectual disabilities are more likely to have been born near industries that emit toxic chemicals or heavy metals.

That’s why Judith Pinborough-Zimmerman, research assistant professor in the U.’s Department of Psychiatry, wants to look more closely at a possible link. She and other researchers examined the maternal addresses found on birth certificates of children born in 1993 and 1994 in Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties who were later diagnosed with autism or other mental disabilities.

What they found is raising some eyebrows.

As Heather May reports for The Salt Lake Tribune, children born to mothers who lived within a mile of what are called Toxic Release Inventory sites that emit certain chemicals and heavy metals were more likely to have those problems. TRI facilities release or dispose toxic chemicals regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA maintains a database of all such facilities and the type and amount of chemicals they release.

Here are the numbers, as reported by The Salt Lake Tribune:

• The risk of having an autism spectrum disorder was 3.5 times greater for children born within a mile of a site releasing between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of halogenated chemicals (dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls and trichloroethylene). There were five such TRI sites emitting at those levels in the mid-1990s.

• The risk of having an autism spectrum disorder was twice as big when living within a mile of one of six TRI sites emitting up to 5,000 pounds of the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, lead, nickel and mercury.
he risk for developing an intellectual disability was similarly high within a mile of those sites.

• Oddly, the odds of developing a speech-language impairment was less for children born closer to a TRI site.

Amanda Bakian, one of the researchers of the study says it’s too soon to say whether living next to those industrial sites contributes to the development of autism and a more rigorous study is needed.

“We need to take this study to the next step and have it peer-reviewed and published,” Bakian said.

Brian Moench, president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said the U. pilot study, along with the others, should serve as a wake-up call. “We need to start paying attention to the kinds of exposures we’re allowing our families to be subjected to.”

Researchers just might be onto something. Meredith Carroll reported on a similar study last year that babies who lived within 1,000 feet of a freeway (but not a major road) were found to be at risk for autism because of their exposure to pollutants inherent to that type of throughway.

Because heavy metals don’t break down, “the impact on public health increases every single year,” Moench tells The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s time we looked at this and said, ‘Can we afford the community [to be] continually exposed to these kinds of emissions?’”‰”

If you’d like to read Heather May’s entire report on autism and pollution click here.

Image: Flickr.com/Strocchi

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