The developing brains of young children are especially vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.
Exposure to low air quality has been linked to a variety of ailments and medical conditions, including cognitive ones from lowered attention spans in children to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly. Brace yourself for more bad news: researchers have now found a link between air pollution and autism.
A team of scientists closely monitored 1,400 randomly selected children in Shanghai and found that young children faced the dangers of developing neurological problems as a result of being exposed to certain types of minute airborne pollutants. These disorders, they explain in their study, include symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“Exposures to PM1, PM2.5 and PM10 during the first three years of life were associated with the increased risk of ASD and there appeared to be stronger effects of ambient PM pollution on ASD in the second and the third years after birth,” the researcher report. Tiny airborne particles of between 1 and 10 micrometers in size are a major source of air pollution and minute bits of carbon, sulphur oxides, and organic compounds from vehicle exhaust fumes, industrial processes, and the burning of fossil fuels.
“The serious health effects of air pollution are well-documented, suggesting there is no safe level of exposure,” the study’s lead author, Yuming Guo, explains in a statement. “Even exposure to very small amounts of fine particulate matter have been linked to pre-term births, delayed learning, and a range of serious health conditions, including heart disease.”
Albeit the causes of autism aren’t yet well understood, scientists believe that environmental factors play a part in the condition’s development, in addition to genetic factors. “The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment and several studies have suggested this could impact brain function and the immune system,” notes Guo, an associate professor at the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine of Monash University in Australia.
“These effects could explain the strong link we found between exposure to air pollutants and ASD, but further research is needed to explore the associations between air pollution and mental health more broadly,” he adds.
More than 4 million people die each year worldwide of air pollution-related causes, including an estimated 1.7 million children, according to the World Health Organization. Outdoor pollutants take especially grave tolls on the health, wellbeing and lives of children in countries with chronic levels of severe air pollution such as China and India, especially in densely populated urban areas.