Objective: Air pollution contains many toxicants known to affect neurological function and to have effects on the fetus in utero. Recent studies have reported associations between perinatal exposure to air pollutants and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. We tested the hypothesis that perinatal exposure to air pollutants is associated with ASD, focusing on pollutants associated with ASD in prior studies.
Methods: We estimated associations between U.S. Environmental Protection Agency–modeled levels of hazardous air pollutants at the time and place of birth and ASD in the children of participants in the Nurses’ Health Study II (325 cases, 22,101 controls). Our analyses focused on pollutants associated with ASD in prior research. We accounted for possible confounding and ascertainment bias by adjusting for family-level socioeconomic status (maternal grandparents’ education) and census tract–level socioeconomic measures (e.g., tract median income and percent college educated), as well as maternal age at birth and year of birth. We also examined possible differences in the relationship between ASD and pollutant exposures by child’s sex.
Results: Perinatal exposures to the highest versus lowest quintile of diesel, lead, manganese, mercury, methylene chloride, and an overall measure of metals were significantly associated with ASD, with odds ratios ranging from 1.5 (for overall metals measure) to 2.0 (for diesel and mercury). In addition, linear trends were positive and statistically significant for these exposures (p < .05 for each). For most pollutants, associations were stronger for boys (279 cases) than for girls (46 cases) and significantly different according to sex.
Conclusions: Perinatal exposure to air pollutants may increase risk for ASD. Additionally, future studies should consider sex-specific biological pathways connecting perinatal exposure to pollutants with ASD.