ASPPH logo


Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Pittsburgh Finds Association between Air Toxics and Childhood Autism

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were more likely to have been exposed to higher levels of certain air toxics during their mothers’ pregnancies and the first two years of life compared to children without the condition, according to the preliminary findings of a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health investigation of children in southwestern Pennsylvania.


[Photo: Dr. Evelyn Talbott]

This research, funded by The Heinz Endowments, was presented October 22 at the American Association for Aerosol Research annual meeting in Orlando, Florida.

“Autism spectrum disorders are a major public health problem, and their prevalence has increased dramatically,” said Dr. Evelyn Talbott, principal investigator of the analysis and professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health. “Despite its serious social impact, the causes of autism are poorly understood. Very few studies of autism have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors. Our analysis is an addition to the small but growing body of research that considers air toxics as one of the risk factors for ASD.”

Dr. Talbott and her colleagues performed a population-based study of families with and without ASD living in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. The researchers found links between increased levels of chromium and styrene and childhood autism spectrum disorder, a condition that affects one in 68 children.

Autism spectrum disorders are a range of conditions characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties that typically become apparent early in childhood. Reported cases of ASD have risen nearly eight-fold in the last two decades. While previous studies have shown the increase to be partially due to changes in diagnostic practices and greater public awareness of autism, this does not fully explain the increased prevalence. Both genetic and environmental factors are believed to be partially responsible.

Dr. Talbott and her team interviewed 217 families of children with ASD and compared these findings with information from two separate sets of comparison families of children without ASD born during the same time period within the six-county area.

Additional investigators on this study were Dr. Vincent Arena, Ms. Judith Rager, Dr. Ravi Sharma, and Ms. Lynne Marshall, all of Pitt.

The meeting abstract is available at