If you want to catch a breath of fresh air, forget about it! Pollution is everywhere. Pick up a newspaper or surf the web and you will soon encounter another air pollution crisis somewhere around the globe. 1 Some might even say it is old news. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been issuing air pollution studies and alerts since the 1980’s. The World Health Organization even declared air pollution a global carcinogenic in 2014 and the cause of an estimated seven million premature deaths each year. 2
Nothing seems to surprise us anymore... until some new medical statistic actually hits us right between the eyes, or, in this case, the ears. This time, two new Harvard University studies link pregnant women’s exposure to high levels of air pollution -- and heavy metals in particular -- to the rising incidence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) around the world. 3
In the U.S., alone, one in every 150 children is now thought to be on the autism spectrum. That spectrum now includes an expanded grouping of brain disorders that range from Asperger’s syndrome to pervasive development disorders characterized by delays in the development of socialization and communication skills called PDDs. With an estimated 4 million new cases expected over the next decade, many doctors are calling it an epidemic. 4
Public Enemy No. 1: Particulate Matter
The Harvard research tracked the health history of some 116,000 female U.S. nurses dating back to 1989. Leveraging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National-Scale Air Toxics Assessments (NATA) data, the Harvard team mapped the women’s whereabouts at the time of their pregnancies to air-pollution statistics in their neighborhoods. The results are disturbing. Expectant mothers who were exposed to elevated levels of air pollutants, and especially something known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5, had an increased risk of delivering a baby with ASD. 5 Among the exposed women, 245 of their children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 6
What is PM2.5 and where does it come from? A catchall term, PM2.5 describes the proverbial kitchen sink of microscopic particles found in the air. The 2.5 is a reference to micrometers in diameter, which is about 1/30th the average width of a human hair. From dust, smoke, droplets, and soot, to potentially heavy metals such as lead, chromium, and mercury, to name just a few, these minuscule particles come from a variety of sources, including all types of combustion emissions, from vehicles, industry, wood burning, to just about everything emitted into the air. 7 What makes them especially dangerous is their size. Before you finish reading this paragraph, for example, you will likely inhale a hefty dose of these micro-toxins courtesy of the air we breathe. Over time, these particles can accumulate in our bodies, blood streams, and brains and some believe that this accumulation can be connected to a long list of illnesses that now seem to include autism. 8
Rising Public Concern
That last fact is not lost on the residents of Northampton, MA, or a young mother from New York. Both recently made national headlines in response to the Harvard studies.
In Massachusetts, the Northampton group is fighting to curb a local power company from increasing lead emissions into the atmosphere by more than 20 times the current level. They worry that the heavy metal is the cause behind several neighborhood children being diagnosed with ASD. 9
In New York City, Carmen Sanchez believes that air pollution played a role in the diagnosis of mild autism in her son, Jacob. At the time of her pregnancy, she was living near the Cross Bronx Expressway and next to a building that emitted huge amounts of smoke and soot.
"In some ways, this study gives me peace of mind that we're closer to solving the problem that is autism,” Sanchez told NBC News. "But in other ways, it gets even more scary. You can avoid eating certain things. But air pollution is such a large problem. How do you avoid living in a certain area?" 10
More Research Is Needed
One of the principal scientists of the Harvard autism studies is quick to point out that there are many possible contributing factors to the rise in autism. However, the correlation between air pollution and the rise in autism are too strong to ignore.
“We found an association that was specific to pregnancy and especially to the third trimester, identifying a window, which might shed a light on processes that are happening that can lead to autism," Marc Weisskopf, associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, told NBC News. "We are getting to the point where the evidence is pointing to a role for the environment in increasing the risk for autism." 11
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted the National-Scale Air Toxics Assessments (NATA) initiative since 1990. Through the years, EPA’s comprehensive evaluation of air toxics has identified air pollution and heavy metals as sources of all types of human illnesses, from Parkinson’s disease to cancer. 12
Following the recent Harvard studies and the suspected role of fine particulate matter in increasing the risk for autism, researchers are now beginning to hone in on the underlying biology of the disease. Increasingly, their focus will be on PM2.5 nanoparticles using refined analytical testing instruments that will hopefully unravel some of the secrets of a complex disease.
Among the instrumentation ideally suited to that task is PerkinElmer’s wide choice of atomic spectroscopy tools. Among these is the award-winning NexION® 350 ICP/MS spectrometer, the world’s fastest single particle analyzer, capable of tracing heavy metals in the air right down to the elemental level. 13 Also an important part of PerkinElmer’s innovative environmental solutions are the Ozone Precursor and Air Toxics Analyzers and PinAAcle® 500 atomic absorption spectrometer.These instruments integrate the company’s TurboMatrixTM Desorber, Clarus® 500 Gas Chromatograph, TurboMassTM Gold GC/MS, and flame-only atomic absorption (AA) spectrometry to create an ideal platform for testing ozone and volatile organic compounds in air, water, and soil.
Air Pollution in World: Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map.
Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health, World Health Organization Fact Sheet No. 313, updated March 2014. See also, Lead, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
- Roberts, A. L., et al. 2013. "Perinatal Air Pollutant Exposures and Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Children of Nurses’ Health Study II Participants." Environmental Health Perspectives 121(8):978-984. See also, Raz, R., et al. 2015. "Autism Spectrum Disorder and Particulate Matter Air Pollution Before, During, and After Pregnancy: A Nested Case–Control Analysis Within the Nurses’ Health Study II Cohort." Environmental Health Perspectives 123(3):264-270.
Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs), WebMD: Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center. See also, Doctors: Autism Reaches Epidemic Levels, Autism Today.com
- Raz, R., et al. 2015. "Autism Spectrum Disorder and Particulate Matter Air Pollution Before, During, and After Pregnancy: A Nested Case–Control Analysis Within the Nurses’ Health Study II Cohort." Environmental Health Perspectives 123(3):264-270. See also, Wojcik, Sarah M. 2015. "Studies Linking Autism and Air Pollution Create Worries in Northampton", The Morning Call.
Autism and Air Pollution: New Study Bolsters Suspected Link, NBC News.com.
What is PM2.5? Frequently Asked Questions, Environmental Protection Agency.
- Roberts, A. L., et al. 2013. "Perinatal Air Pollutant Exposures and Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Children of Nurses’ Health Study II Participants." Environmental Health Perspectives 121(8):978-984.
- Wojcik, Sarah M. 2015. "Studies Linking Autism and Air Pollution Create Worries in Northampton", The Morning Call.
Autism and Air Pollution: New Study Bolsters Suspected Link, NBC News.com.
Toxic Metals, Occupational Safety & Health Administration: Safety and Health Topics. See also, Palacios, Natalia, et al. 2014. "Particulate Matter and Risk of Parkinson Disease in a Large Prospective Study of Women." Environmental Health 13:80-89.
NexION 350 ICP-MS Spectrometers, SelectScience.net