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Current State-of-the-Science on Environmental Factors in Autism

The third and final lecture of the 2012-2013 Distinguished Lecture Series in Environmental Science, Technology, and Policy: Environment and Health at Carnegie Mellon University was held March 21, 2013. The topic was the “Current State-of-the-Science on Environmental Factors in Autism” presented by Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an environmental epidemiologist from the University of California Davis MIND Institute.

Dr. Hertz-Picciotto is Director for the California programs CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risk from Genes and Environment), the first large, comprehensive, population-based study of environmental factors in autism, and MARBLES (Markers of Autism Risk in Babies – Learning Early Signs), which searches for early markers, starting during pregnancy, that will predict autism.  She has served on various advisory panels including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Toxicology Program, the California Air Resources Board and Proposition 65 committee, and the National Institutes of Health’s Interagency Coordinating Committee on Autism Research.

Upon entering the field of research for autism about 10 years ago, Dr. Hertz-Picciotto discovered that there are two main causes of this Pervasive Developmental Disorder, these being genetic factors and environmental exposures.  Dr. Hertz-Picciotto’s primary focus is on the autism spectrum disorder genes (ASD) genes linked to potential common mechanisms responsible for interrupted brain development.  Dr. Hertz-Picciotto believes environmental factors are responsible for recent increases in children born with autism.

“We do not have the ability to change the patterns of our genes.  However, we can intervene when it comes to our environmental influences,” Dr. Hertz-Picciotto said.  She presented a review of contributing factors that influence spikes in autism such as pesticides, metals, air pollution, medical treatments (fertility treatments and maternal medications), metabolic conditions, and acute illnesses.

Concerning air quality and its explicit influence on the increasing number of children born with autism, Dr. Hertz-Picciotto discussed the importance of limiting exposure to any unhealthy levels of air pollution, as early as three months prior to conception.  The lecture specifically stressed how important it is for pregnant women or those considering having children to avoid long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution, if possible.

This is vital during the prenatal period of the potential child because this is where the development is in its most fragile state.  Dr. Hertz-Picciotto provided support for her theory by discussing tests she and her team did while on large rodent populations where traffic-related pollutants, such as benzo(a)pyrene and diesel exhaust, from busy freeways proved to induce neurodevelopmental deficits.

Dr. Hertz-Picciotto urged women to be wary of their environmental surroundings, pointing out the multi factorial nature of autism causality and critical time windows.  She concluded, “There is no known cure for autism.  This means we must work harder to limit our negative influences and find ways to help those whom are faced with the consequences of our [polluting] actions.”

Guest post by Brianna Britos-Swain, Chatham College for Women at Chatham University student

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