A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Multiple Airborne Pollutants and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Background: Exposure to ambient air pollution is widespread and may be detrimental to human brain development and a potential risk factor for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We conducted a systematic review of the human evidence on the relationship between ASD and exposure to all airborne pollutants, including particulate matter air pollutants and others (e.g. pesticides and metals).

Objective: To answer the question: “is developmental exposure to air pollution associated with ASD?”

Methods: We conducted a comprehensive search of the literature, identified relevant studies using inclusion/exclusion criteria pre-specified in our protocol (registered in PROSPERO, CRD # 42015017890), evaluated the potential risk of bias for each included study and identified an appropriate subset of studies to combine in a meta-analysis. We then rated the overall quality and strength of the evidence collectively across all air pollutants.

Results: Of 1,158 total references identified, 23 human studies met our inclusion criteria (17 case-control, 4 ecological, 2 cohort). Risk of bias was generally low across studies for most domains; study limitations were related to potential confounding and accuracy of exposure assessment methods. We rated the quality of the body of evidence across all air pollutants as “moderate.” From our meta-analysis, we found statistically significant summary odds ratios (ORs) of 1.07 (95% CI: 1.06, 1.08) per 10-μg/m3 increase in PM10 exposure (n = 6 studies) and 2.32 (95% CI: 2.15, 2.51) per 10-μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 exposure (n = 3 studies). For pollutants not included in a meta-analysis, we collectively evaluated evidence from each study in rating the strength and quality of overall evidence considering factors such as inconsistency, imprecision, and evidence of dose-response. All included studies generally showed increased risk of ASD with increasing exposure to air pollution, although not consistently across all chemical components.

Conclusion: After considering strengths and limitations of the body of research, we concluded that there is “limited evidence of toxicity” for the association between early life exposure to air pollution as a whole and diagnosis of ASD. The strongest evidence was between prenatal exposure to particulate matter and ASD. However, the small number of studies in the meta-analysis and unexplained statistical heterogeneity across the individual study estimates means that the effect could be larger or smaller (including not significant) than these studies estimate. Our research supports the need for health protective public policy to reduce exposures to harmful airborne contaminants among pregnant women and children and suggests opportunities for optimizing future research.


Biology and Biomarkers

Alycia Halladay