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Early exposure to PM2.5 associated with increased risk of childhood autism; causality unproven

Exposure to fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) during pregnancy through the first two years of a child’s life may be associated with an increased risk of the child developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition that affects one in 68 children, according to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health investigation of children in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The research is funded by The Heinz Endowments and published in the July edition of Environmental Research.

Autism spectrum disorders are lifelong conditions for which there is no cure and limited treatment options, so there is an urgent need to identify any risk factors that we could mitigate, such as pollution. Our findings reflect an association, but do not prove causality. Further investigation is needed to determine possible biological mechanisms for such an association.

—lead author Evelyn Talbott, Dr.P.H., professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health

Dr. Talbott and her colleagues performed a population-based, case-control study of families with and without ASD living in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. They obtained detailed information about where the mothers lived before, during and after pregnancy and, using a model developed by Pitt Public Health assistant professor and study co-author Jane Clougherty, Sc.D., were able to estimate individual exposure to PM2.5.

Because of its small size—less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter—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.

Autism spectrum disorders are a range of conditions characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties that typically become apparent early in childhood. Reported cases of ASD have risen nearly eight-fold in the last two decades. While previous studies have shown the increase to be partially due to changes in diagnostic practices and greater public awareness of autism, this does not fully explain the increased prevalence. Both genetic and environmental factors are believed to be responsible.

Dr. Talbott and her team interviewed the families of 211 children with ASD and 219 children without ASD born between 2005 and 2009. The families lived in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties. Estimated average exposure to PM2.5 before, during and after pregnancy was compared between children with and without ASD.

Based on the child’s exposure to concentrations of PM2.5 during the mother’s pregnancy and the first two years of life, the Pitt Public Health team found that children who fell into higher exposure groups were at an approximate 1.5-fold greater risk of ASD after accounting for other factors associated with the child’s risk for ASD—such as the mother’s age, education and smoking during pregnancy. This risk estimate is in agreement with several other recent investigations of PM2.5 and autism.

A previous Pitt Public Health analysis of the study population revealed an association between ASD and increased levels of air toxics, including chromium and styrene. Studies by other institutions using different populations also have associated pollutants with ASD.

Air pollution levels have been declining since the 1990s; however, we know that pockets of increased levels of air pollution remain throughout our region and other areas. Our study builds on previous work in other regions showing that pollution exposures may be involved in ASD. Going forward, I would like to see studies that explore the biological mechanisms that may underlie this association.

—Evelyn Talbott


  • Evelyn O. Talbott, Vincent C. Arena, Judith R. Rager, Jane E. Clougherty, Drew R. Michanowicz, Ravi K. Sharma, Shaina L. Stacy (2015) “Fine particulate matter and the risk of autism spectrum disorder,” Environmental Research, Volume 140, Pages 414-420 doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2015.04.021



You mean sucking in particulates from burning poisonous hydrocarbons in combustion engines isn't good for you and could cause bad side effects??? NO WAY!!!!

Next thing you'll be telling me it's not good for the environment and that we'll even be fighting wars to obtain the poison crap from the middle east!

The sad part is that a third of the people who read this won't pick up on my sarcasm and another third won't agree with me even if they understand what I'm saying. :(


Sorry Dave, only a third of me agrees with you(ha)



I imagine that those who disagree with you may have always enjoyed plenty of intellect-enhancing PM2.5 from childhood, and would certainly argue that it has not done them any harm......


LOL to both of you!


For decades we were told that tobacco smoking was good for our health.

For many more decades were told that tobacco smoking had nothing to do with lung cancer and heart diseases.

For over a century we were told that second hand smoking did not affect our children's and our own health.

We now know that all above were false but over 22% still smoke.

It is well known that pollution from ICEVs is making us sick and/or killing us but, 99% still drive ICEVs and 66+% still do not believe that pollution from ICEVs has multiple ill effects on humans, animals and plants and global warming.

To make things worse, according IMF, we subsidies fossil fuels at the rate of $5.3T/year and we think that we are smart?

Is it possible that we may be many times more stupid than we think we are?


You've nailed it bud. In fact, one of my favorite movie quotes sums us up brilliantly at times:

"You know, I have noticed an infestation here. Everywhere I look, in fact. Nothing but undeveloped, unevolved, barely conscious pond scum. So convinced of their own superiority as they scurry about their short, pointless lives."




Rate of autism in the US continues to rise as the presence of particulates drops. In keeping with the Economic Justice mantra, poorer people must live closer to refineries. And yet their rates of ASD are lower than those in affluent communities. (Yes, stupidly small datasets like the one in the referenced political scree.. er… “study” above show that kids in Channelview, TX have a lower incidence of ASD than those in Pittsford, NY.)

And China… the model for uncontrolled capitalism and coal burning that is Destroying the World, in which kids white clothing comes home mottled slightly grey and brown on days when they only go outside to commute to and from school: 1.2 in 1000.

In fact, in developing nations (where air quality assessments are generally horrid for everything from toxic volatiles to fine particulates) autism rates are 5-10% of those in the US, and well under half those in Europe. So there’s a great supporting argument as well... for the null hypothesis.

Finally in the US the rate of autism diagnosis is far greater today than in the late 60’s/early 70’s, when kids like me were frequently sent outside on summer days to bring in clothes from the line because moms could see ultrafine dust accumulating far faster, and knew that everything was going to need another washing if they were left in the smoggy air. We didn’t even hear the word autism spoken, and there weren’t coffee klatches of distressed parents comparing Spectrum diagnostics of their kids.

Maybe you guys buying into this particular piece of cargo cult science should check into the sites pointing to MMR vaccine or phthalates or GMO foods or WiFi or chemtrails or low-level nuclear waste (or whatever it is that interferes with your vision of the world) as the cause of autism. Your scientific judgment fits them all perfectly.

BTW: I have a mildly autistic kid, or so the Doc says. He’s weird, but then so am I. He is also smart enough to understand asininity at its very apex, and passes on his disdain for such.


Herman...the world will soon realize that many modern industrial processes are progressively modifying our environment and our offspring.

Our children and grand children are born with more and more incurable defects. USA is now spending close to 20% (and rising) of its GDP trying to fix those ill effects with very little successes. Americans life expectancy is going down and they have never been as disabled and sick.

Sooner or latter we may become smart enough to identify what we have done wrong and convince our children and grand children to correct it.

Tobacco smoking, CPPs, NGPPs, ICEVs, pesticides, junk foods are only a few examples to be corrected.


Harvey perhaps they are all killing us (as our lifespans continue to lengthen, BTW), but the point is that the conclusions to this study are BS.


Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Migrating Monarch butterfly populations have dropped 90%, honeybees are dying like flies (pun intended), seas are rising and fish are dying. FUBAR


Are you saying that 2.5 particulate matter is good for us? Do you really believe that breathing the exhaust of combustion engines is somehow not causing damage?

Yes, we are living longer because we keep curing or finding ways to treat the major diseases that kill us early. We also reduce traffic deaths and other causes of death. So that's BS to site a long life span as a reason to ignore this.

I'm willing to see your stats on 2.5 PM decreasing, please provide links. And even if they are, do they overlay the areas where it's dropping with the areas of autism incidence?

As we all know, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. You show me your numbers and I'll find somebody else's numbers to refute it. At the end of the day, we have to apply common sense and say: "Hey, is it really ok to huff exhaust fumes?".

I think the answer is a resounding NO. All the other crap is arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.


Americans relative longevity or life span is going down. Americans relative life span has gone down to 51st place at anywhere between 75 to 78.37 years depending on which factors are included or excluded.

Americans relative life span has been going down for 3 to 6 decades. Will 20+% of GDP dedicated to health care be enough to reverse the tendency? It hasn't so far.

When only normal and healthy Americans are considered (i.e. less than 60% of the total population), the life span is much longer.

The main culprit is probably too much junk food creating obesity for 50+% of Americans together with many associated illnesses and early death.

Another culprit is environmental deterioation by 10,000+ modern industrial products, CPPs, NGPPs, ICEVs, tobacco smoking, drugs, etc. Over 4,000 products may have to be taken off the market place or restricted to reverse the relative downward trend.


And Dave D wins the prize for classically silly strawman!! I wondered how long it would take... more than four hours is a little disappointing for you guys.

This happens a lot on the internet: never miss an opportunity to imply moral violence.

On a history comments board...
Rational guy: "Very few Confederate soldiers were slaveholders"
Angry righteous dude: "Are you saying slavery was OK?!?"

On the business comments board...
RG: "The marginal propensity to risk capital goes up with the potential return, so wealthy investors who can afford risk will seek those opportunities, in turn perhaps creating economic value"
ARD: "Oh, so you're saying we should just let Mark Zuckerberg own America?!?"

On the wildlife board:
RG: "Chimpanzee populations show an unexpected tendency toward tribal conflict, killing and even cannibalizing as an expression of territorial possession."
ARD: "Are you saying brutal warfare is natural and acceptable in humans?!?"

And so it goes. So, with great resignation to the power of the internet culture of "argumentation": no, I am not saying 2.5 micron particulate ingestion is good. Crazily enough (and how could I not have known this could be misconstrued), I am saying that a position paper masquerading as a study that is completely unsupportable by scientific methodology is stupid. And this one is. That obvious conclusion expresses not a whit of affection for the little teeny demons.

The reference to longer life spans expresses two points, neither the one you (tiresomely) imply:

(1) Even with all the putative evils that Harvey lists ("Tobacco smoking, CPPs, NGPPs, ICEVs, pesticides, junk foods") we live longer. Some of that is because of heroic health care measures, but some is because of (2).

(2) The world is complex. I'll assert with absolute confidence that the benefits of cheap and readily available transport far exceed the downsides... even the pollution. Physical mobility allows options for economic success, educational opportunity, free association within (and without) cultures, etc., which improves prospects for everything from health to infant mortality to peaceful commerce. Food production, transportation, and preservation has vastly improved, in large part due to affordable, dense, dispatchable liquid fuel-driven energy conversion (engines). We have ready accessibility to a breadth of specialized health care options across a continent that were unimaginable even a century ago, which exist because we can travel to them at our will.

It goes on an on, alongside a list of many, many downsides, among them the unhealthy emissions from these wonderful machines. So indeed we fix that, perhaps with greater haste. But inventing stupid, non-existent and distracting boogeymen pollutes in its own way, causing false prioritization of actions and unnecessary fear. And painting mobility as a demon that must be exiled from our way of life is stupid with crunchy stupid topping and creamy stupid filling.

Are PM2.5 concentrations down? For man-made concentrations in developed countries, the answer is almost always yes since the sources have been so greatly reduced (unburned hydrocarbons in engines and power plants, secondary products of sulfur nitrous oxides, etc., all of which have been significantly and successfully regulated). Where we might pause in that assertion is those places where spark-ignited transport has been replaced by diesels (and in much greater numbers with growth in numbers of vehicles). That's not really a problem in North America where diesels are largely unpopular. Not so much in Paris and London, where the zeal to recue CO2 has led to some questionable interim choices.

Historical data is hard to find because we did not attempt to inventory by size until lately. But particulate emissions from transport sources is down by over 95% since 1970, so I guessing since I was a kid, yeah, there's a lot less, so go figure on the autism BS.

So... TL/DR: Only a knucklehead could imply that I meant PM2.5 particulates are good. I said the "study" was dumb. And while we have to continue improvement we cannot give up mobility. In the meantime keep working on reducing them.


We DO NOT have to give up mobility, energy production, industrial production, agriculture, food processing and conservation, eating, medicament production etc but we may have to learn to do it a different way.

All the above can be done without creating harmful emissions, without poisoning the environment, without affecting the health of new born children etc.


I didn't realize you were so pompous. Had you not started off your comments with personal insults then perhaps this could be a civil conversation. A simple explanation of why the study might be flawed and your data or even beliefs would have sufficed. But like most people who want to fight about their *opinion*, you're too busy demeaning anyone that disagrees with you to bother with a simple conversation.

As you're suddenly concerned about wording and people assigning values and thoughts to you, notice in my comments, I never stated the study was brilliant or even correct. I was mocking the idea that anyone could be surprised that the burning of hydrocarbons in general would be anything but bad. Reread my original comment to start this conversation.

Show your data showing that PM 2.5 is NOT correlated with ausitm. You made the claim so produce the data.

Yes, I agree this particular study probably drew the wrong conclusion and the PM 2.5 is simply a correlation because it happens to accompany other traffic pollution. There has been plenty of studies to show a strong correlation between traffic pollution in general and autism. The following study DOES take the time to correlate the actual geographic areas with the highest traffic pollution and higher rates of autism.
A simple google will show many studies with similar findings over the last 5 years.

This particular study decided to call out PM 2.5 and I'm not taking the time to read why because it simply doesn't matter. The obvious issue is that breathing more pollution is not good. YOU chose to be pedantic and insulting about this particular study and, again, I said NOTHING about this study being correct.

My statement was that PM 2.5 is obviously not good for us. My question to you was: Do you really think that breathing PM 2.5 is good for us? You have answered that question so move on to something else.

You started an argument for no reason when you could have easily made your point without calling anyone silly or a knucklehead or whatever other insults you care to use.

We all seem to be in agreement that we should continue to cut emissions.

However, nobody said we could give up mobility. It's funny that your "strawman" is that somebody here said we should give up mobility. your insulting strawmans are ok? Do you realize that you're a hypocrite who isn't even self aware?


We all have bad days,

There is quite a history of harmf ul effects from particulate pollution and the chemicals and their reactions associated with and creating various toxic substances.
Toxic to people and climate.

I am also aware of the health affects from hydrocarbon emissions that often exceed "safe levels" when they are measured at any of our emission points.
Tailpipe car exhausts are not benign at any source I am aware of and should certainly not be simply described as p2.5 as that just doesn't exist in isolation.

Fugitive emissions are the elephant in the room.

I have heard references to human lung function as being very robust and well 'designed' for coping with smoke' relative to others of the animal kingdom - but were never designed for continuous exposure.
Of course that belongs to a world where lifespans were half present expectations.

The reports and descriptions of health affects esp to children are consistent with our understanding of 'safe' exposure levels.

Nobody should take a one size approach to the concerns or be deceived that we are managing the problem.

A case in point that all readers would be aware of.
Cruise ships docking at secondary wharves located in residential Balmain Sydney are 100M from residents windows and emit point source 28X10*6 car equivalent.28 million.

As usual best practice that would have included port power was not even considered as there was a cost associated with that.
Good news is their noses are expected to stop bleeding in about a years time when the error is expected to be rectified.

The wheels of progress turn slowly and we are just grist.


Since we're on the subject, I did a bit more reading. I'm more inclined to believe there could be a causative effect on Autism after reading other studies such as this one that show an independent effect on brain/neural activity outside of lung issues.

As we have almost no idea what causes autism, I'm not comfortable with anything that might mess with brains and neural activity being dismissed as a potential cause.


With business as usual, a recent study by the Canadian Cancer Society claims that cancer cases will increase by 40% in USA/Canada by 2030.

Be prepared to pay increased treatment cost.

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