Autistic children who are exposed to air pollution even for relatively short periods of time may be at higher risk of being hospitalized, with boys at higher risk than girls, a study finds.
The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, found that by minimizing these children’s exposure to air pollution, admissions for problems such as hyperactivity, aggression or self-harm could be prevented.
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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder with a range of symptoms and degrees of severity. It is often accompanied by neuroinflammation and systemic inflammation, meaning medication, supplements, and diet can improve core symptoms.
It is believed that short-term exposure to air pollution (days to weeks) can induce systemic inflammation and neuroinflammation, potentially increasing the risk of hospitalization in autistic people.
The researchers from Seoul National University Hospital, Korea, used official government data on daily hospitalizations for autism in children aged 5 to 14 between 2011 and 2015.
They collected information on national daily levels of particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3) in each of the 16 regions of the Republic of Korea for up to six days.
The average daily number of hospitalizations for autism during the study period was 8.5 for autistic children and was much higher for boys (7) than girls (1.6).
Analysis of the data showed that short-term exposure to PM2.5, NO2 and O3 was associated with an increased risk of hospitalization for autism and that boys were at a higher risk than girls.
A 10 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) increase in PM2.5 levels is associated with a 17 percent higher risk of hospitalization for autism, the researchers said.
A 10 parts per billion increase in NO2 and O3 is associated with a 9 percent and 3 percent higher risk, respectively, they said.
The researchers calculated that exposure to these pollutants was associated with a quarter increase, equivalent to a 29 percent higher risk of hospitalization for autism, with NO2 having the greatest impact, according to the researchers.
The team acknowledged that they used regional air pollution values rather than individual ones, which may have influenced the results. Also, autistic children with mild symptoms may be less likely to receive psychiatric treatment and may not have been included, they said.
“This study suggests that short-term exposure to air pollution affects the worsening of ASD symptoms, which is more pronounced in boys than in girls,” the researchers said.
“These results emphasize that reducing exposure to air pollution should be considered for the management of ASD symptoms, with important implications for quality of life and economic costs,” they added.
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