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Study: Increased autism risk linked to air pollution

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NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Whether you're in Dallas or Fort Worth, you've seen the haze. It's worse in the summer and more noticeable when you're looking at downtown buildings — but the dirty air may be more than an eyesore.

A new study says pollution may be tied to an increased risk of autism.

For parents of autistic kids, it is a devastating diagnosis. "He's not gonna drive. He's not gonna have the life that you thought your child was gonna have," mother Beth Susens said.

According to experts, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) — marked by significant social and behavioral challenges — is a complicated diagnosis now shared by one in 88 American children.

Autism has no known cause and no cure. But, University of Southern California researchers believe they have a new clue to its cause: air pollution. USC researcher Dr. heather Bolk said, "We do think in our study that we may have identified a risk factor which may contribute to autism."

Researchers sampled more than 500 children. They factored in geographical locations and air quality data during each trimester of pregnancy and the first year of life. The researchers found that kids who were exposed to the highest levels of traffic-related air pollution were three times more likely to have autism.

"We're getting what we call now ‘genetic polymorphism,'" Autism Treatment Center of Dallas director Carolyn Garver, Ph.D. said. "Our genes are changing and they're changing in response to what we're exposed to."

Garver said a number of factors have been shown to increase the risk of autism – they include genetic, biological and environmental factors.

The same USC researchers completed a study two years ago that found mothers living within 1000 feet of a freeway when they gave birth had children more likely to develop autism. Experts say more research is needed and some are cautioning against a rush to quick cause-and-effect conclusions.

"I don't think it [pollution] is the only cause of autism, but I think it definitely could be a contributing factor," Dr. Garver said.

While there is no cure for autism, experts say there is treatment. They also add that early diagnosis and medical intervention is critical.

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