Could air pollution cause autism and diabetes in children?

Dan Upham

The list of reasons you should be worried about air pollution just got a little longer. Two recent studies have highlighted how the most vulnerable members of society, babies and young children, may be suffering serious health consequences due to air pollution in their communities:

  • Researchers from Harvard University’s School of Public Health reported that pregnant women exposed to high levels of diesel particulates or mercury were twice as likely to have an autistic child compared with peers in low-pollution areas.
  • A new research paper published in Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD), found that growing up in areas with high air pollution raises the risk of insulin resistance (the precursor to diabetes) in children, as reported in Science Daily.

“What both of these studies are telling us is that exposures early in life can have profoundly significant health impacts,” said Sarah Vogel, director of Environmental Defense Fund’s Health program. “Both of these studies provide more evidence that chemical exposures early in development can significantly increase our risks for serious chronic diseases later in life. We’re seeing evidence of this in animal studies of chemicals, some of which have been associated with increased risk of neurodevelopmental problems, obesity—so called obesogens, and diabetes.”

Air pollution and autism

“In the Harvard study, the researchers found an association between air pollution—really a complex mixture of pollutants that are known to be neurotoxic— and autism,” said Vogel. “But because many pollutants travel together in the air, the researchers were unable to identify with confidence which pollutants may be the most critical in the development of autism.”

Air pollution and diabetes

“What makes the Diabetologia paper strong is that it followed the children forward through time and found a positive correlation between increase air pollution and insulin resistance,” explained Vogel. “Not all insulin resistance will result in diabetes (type II)but it is an important risk factor for the disease.”

Given that type II diabetes is now the most common chronic disease in children (1 in 400 children or adolescents has it), aggressively seeking to mitigate any of its causes is a health and social justice imperative. The U.S. spent $245 billion treating diabetes last year, so the literal cost of inaction is substantial, as well.

What I find most troubling is that all of these kids are the victims of circumstance, and they had nothing to do with the air pollution that’s undercutting their odds of a healthy life free of disease. If you want to learn more about how toxic chemicals found in the air and everyday products impact health, here’s what you need to know.

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