Study Inconclusively Links Pollution and Autism
> 6/26/2006 11:32:44 AM

Autism is a serious and potentially handicapping condition which effects as many as 300,000 Americans. Previous posts at The Psychology of Education discussed the growing public awareness of autism, and a recent study draws surprising, if tenuous, links between environmental factors and the prevalence of the condition. This study, conducted on a small sample group living in the San Francisco bay area, seems to indicate that the children of mothers living in areas with greater degrees of air pollution are more likely to develop autism, which often begins during fetal development. The main contaminants named in this study are heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and nickel. Activists have long argued that early exposure to excessive levels of mercury-related elements such as those used to preserve childhood vaccines can bring about autism, and these findings will likely serve as fodder for their cause alongside earlier environmental studies in other American cities.

Experts have long stated that the link between mercury and autism is questionable, and the study's authors make only very cautious statements about the larger implications of their findings:

...Living in areas with higher ambient levels of hazardous air pollutants, particularly metals and chlorinated solvents, during pregnancy or early childhood, may be associated with a moderately increased risk of autism. These findings illuminate the need for further scientific investigation, as they are biologically plausible but preliminary and require confirmation.

Genetics play an unquestionably crucial role in determining a predisposition toward autism, and the types of metals released into the atmosphere by industrial activity are not the same as those found in vaccines. The fact remains that very little concrete evidence exists regarding the root causes of autism. Though this study will encourage much-needed debate about where this disorder begins and how it can best be treated, it is not definitive cause for pointing fingers or a sweeping call for litigation. It simply reminds us that further study will benefit both current cases of autism and the future generations who may develop the condition.

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