It’s not unknown that air pollution affects brain development, but the first ever large-scale national study proves that there is a strong link between the prevalence of toxins and the development of mental disorders. The study of more than 22,000 women led by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that those exposed to pollutants such as diesel particulates and mercury during pregnancy were twice as likely to have a child with autism. These findings are extremely important for many reasons, but there is one core reason that should alarm all of us. Our economy runs on diesel! The big rigs that bring food to the shelves of our local supermarkets are fueled by diesel. Furthermore, an increasing number of passenger cars now employ diesel engines. So you see how all of this ties in? More diesel use means more pollution… and a higher risk of autism in children.
Before we jump to conclusions, let’s take a closer look at the data provided by the Harvard study. The researchers analyzed data from a nationwide sample of 116,430 nurses participating in the Nurses’ Health Study II, an on-going survey that began in 1989. Of the volunteers, 325 had children with autism and most of them lived in areas with higher levels of air pollutants. There have been several studies in the past that also speak on behalf of air pollution’s relationship with developmental disorders. A 2012 study of over 500 kids found that those with autism were two to three times more likely than other kids to have been exposed to car exhaust, smog and other air pollutants early on. Critics of these studies want to point out that this association doesn’t mean that air pollution causes autism, only that there is a contributory link. There needs to be future research that encompasses blood samples from both mothers and their babies to see exactly which chemicals are involved.
The Harvard study is a great first step toward figuring out which pollutants are especially dangerous to our bodies and how to decrease our exposure. For the time being- keep these research findings in mind. You can help decrease air pollution by supporting local farmers and food producers. If you need to shop for a new car, pick one that is eco-friendly. These small changes can lead to big changes!