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Car Exhaust Fumes & Air Pollution Are Contributing Factors To Increase In Autism

Updated on October 30, 2014

Autism Air Pollution Linked

WebMD | Archives of General Psychiatry publication of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the University of California Davis MIND Institute Study | Nov. 26, 2012 -- Being exposed to high levels of air pollution from traffic may raise the risk of autism, researchers say. "Children exposed to higher levels of traffic-related pollutants during pregnancy or during the first year of life were at increased risk of autism compared to children exposed to the lowest level," says Heather E. Volk, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of research at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. Autism affects about 1 in 88 children in the U.S.

The study gathered data on children based on their addresses and proximity to areas with busy traffic patterns, air pollution, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide emission.

A direct cause and effect cannot be affirmed due to many other risks including prenatal smoking, the mother's age, race, and ethnicity. However, recommendations to limit outdoor time on poor air quality days may lower risk.

Air Pollution Effects Growth and Development

LATEST NEWS: Autism from Automobile Exhaust Fumes

We may be seeing a correlation between environmental pollutants and increased incidence of autism. Some new data indicates a doubling of risk for those living near highway traffic. We know that polluted airways contribute to asthma. We also can tally up the chemicals spewed into the atmosphere, which have devastating effects upon the growth of organisms.

As a teen forty years ago, I remember doing growth studies of plants along highways and the resultant dwarf specimens. We did spectrometer measurements to visualize the chemical components and if there were heavy metals. Those were the days of the fall-out and bomb shelters when we were afraid nations would blow each other off the face of the earth.

Instead, we are slowly killing future generations because we haven't figured out how to invest in mass transit and clean energy sources. Forty years ago we had the information. And, still we did not develop solar and electric cars. We bear the consequences in our children.

Children in families who live near freeways are twice as likely to have autism as kids who live off the beaten path. Researchers in Los Angeles looked at 304 children with autism and 259 normally developing children and found that those whose moms were living within 1,000 feet of a freeway when they gave birth had an increased risk for autism.


This short list car exhaust chemicals could certainly effect growing fetuses and mental function in young children:

  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Sulphur dioxide
  • Suspended particles, PM-10 particles less than 10 microns in size.
  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Polycyclic hydrocarbons

Autism Video Shown Below: Growing autism rates and the future of autism research; How air pollution can make us sick and what we can do to clean up our air Series: "UC Davis Frontiers" [6/2007] [Public Affairs] [Health and Medicine] [Science] [Show ID: 12865]

Autism is a biological, emotional, genetic and chemical disease. The brains of autistic children grow faster. The total brain and parts of the brain mature too fast and probably absorbs many chemicals in the environment.

Congested Highways & Automobile Exhaust Fumes

As roads become heavily populated, exhaust fumes increase pollutants into the atmosphere
As roads become heavily populated, exhaust fumes increase pollutants into the atmosphere | Source

Carbon Monoxide

What you cannot see can harm you. We have more to worry about the invisible fumes than the large particles. Remember the fetus is effected by what crosses into the placenta from the blood of the mother.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and toxic gas produced as a by-product of combustion. Carbon monoxide inhibits the blood's ability to carry oxygen to body tissues including vital organs such as the heart and brain. When CO is inhaled, it combines with the oxygen carrying hemoglobin of the blood to form carboxyhemoglobin (COHb). Once combined with the hemoglobin, that hemoglobin is no longer available for transporting oxygen. We all know that people commit suicide by leaving the car running in their garage and breathing this gas.

Air Pollution

Nitrous Dioxide

OXIDIZERS: Check out the OSHA regulations on nitrous dioxide an unstable explosive gas. Summary of toxicology Oxidizer

The HCS classifies a chemical as an oxidizer if it is a "chemical other than a blasting agent or explosive as defined in [29 CFR] 1910.109(a), that initiates or promotes combustion in other materials, thereby causing fire either of itself or through the release of oxygen or other gases."

An oxidizing agent is a chemical or substance that brings about an oxidation reaction. The agent may provide the oxygen to the substance being oxidized (in which case the agent has to be oxygen or contain oxygen), or it may receive electrons being transferred from the substance undergoing oxidation (e.g., chlorine is a good oxidizing agent for electron-transfer purposes, even though it contains no oxygen).

Oxidation materials can initiate or greatly accelerate the burning of fuels. The most common oxidizer is atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen-containing chemicals (e.g., hydrogen peroxide and nitrous oxide) and halogens (e.g., bromine, chlorine, and fluorine) can also be strong oxidizers. Some chemicals may be oxidizers with such an extremely fast burning potential that they are classified as explosives or blasting agents rather than oxidizers. Often the fact that a chemical possesses oxidizing potential can be determined by an examination of its chemical structure. For example, oxidizing substances usually include recognizable functional chemical groups, e.g., perchlorate (ClO4-), chlorate (ClO3-), chlorite (ClO2-), hypochlorite (ClO-), peroxide (-O-O-), nitrate (NO3-), nitrite (NO2-), dichromate (Cr2O7), persulfate (S2O8), and permanganate (MnO4).

While the potential for oxidizing can often be inferred by chemical structure, absolute certainty can only be properly established in the laboratory since oxidation involves not only the oxidizing potential of the oxidizer, but also the chemical formulation of the fuel with which it comes in contact. Oxidizers are classified by comparison with the oxidizing properties of a standard test chemical, ammonium persulfate, applied to dry, conditioned sawdust. A solid that promotes combustion of the conditioned sawdust at a greater rate than ammonium persulfate is classified as an oxidizer.

Effects on Humans: Nitrous oxide is an asphyxiant at high concentrations. At lower concentrations, exposure causes central nervous system, cardiovascular, hepatic, hematopoietic, and reproductive effects in humans [Hathaway et al. 1991]. At a concentration of 50 to 67 percent (500,000 to 670,000 ppm) nitrous oxide is used to induce anesthesia in humans [Rom 1992].

Patients exposed to a 50:50 mixture of nitrous oxide:oxygen for prolonged periods to induce continuous sedation developed bone marrow depression and granulocytopenia [Hathaway et al. 1991; ACGIH 1991]. Although most patients recover, several deaths from aplastic anemia have been reported [Hathaway et al. 1991].

Neurotoxic effects occur after acute exposure to concentrations of 80,000 to 200,000 ppm and above; effects include slowed reaction times and performance decrements [Hathaway et al. 1991]. Long-term occupational exposure (dentists, dental assistants) has been associated with numbness, difficulty in concentrating, paresthesias, and impairment of equilibrium [Hathaway et al. 1991; ACGIH 1991]. In one study, exposure to 50 ppm nitrous oxide was associated with a decrement in audiovisual performance, but this result has not been duplicated in other studies [ACGIH 1991]. Epidemiological studies, primarily of operating room personnel, have shown increased risks of spontaneous abortion, premature delivery, and involuntary infertility among these occupationally exposed populations [ACGIH 1991; Hathaway et al. 1991].

Relationship Between Autism and Air Pollution

Sulphur Dioxide

Sulphur dioxide is prevalent in air pollution. High concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO2) can result in breathing problems with asthmatic children and adults who are active outdoors. Short-term exposure has been linked to wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Other effects associated with longer-term exposure to sulfur dioxide, in conjunction with high levels of particulate soot, include respiratory illness, alterations in the lungs' defenses and aggravation of existing cardiovascular disease.

If a person is not receiving enough oxygen in the blood from the lungs this means the brain is not receiving enough oxygen to function properly.


We are paying the price for the convenience of our vehicles. One of the most hazardous components from auto exhaust fumes may exhibit these short term effects simply from breathing benzene:

  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Rapid pulse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Anemia
  • Damage to the nervous system
  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Death

If a person is exposed day after day to benzene more serious effects results:

  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a type of cancer that affects the blood
  • Secondary Aplastic Anemia
  • Damage to the reproductive system
  • Types of leukemia 
  • Severe anemia


Formaldehyde is know to cause birth defects. We remember dissecting a frog in biology class that smelled strongly from this preservative. It is used in particleboard products and as an intermediate in the synthesis of other chemicals.

Exposure to formaldehyde may occur by breathing contaminated indoor air, tobacco smoke, or ambient urban air. Acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure to formaldehyde in humans can result in respiratory symptoms, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. Limited human studies have reported an association between formaldehyde exposure and lung and nasopharyngeal cancer. Animal inhalation studies have reported an increased incidence of nasal squamous cell cancer. EPA considers formaldehyde a probable human carcinogen. EPA

Polycyclic hydrocarbons

Polycyclic hydrocarbons are prevalent in our society. I even learned they can be found in our shampoo. It is not just one chemical. PAHs are a group of approximately 10,000 compounds.

When our cars are not tuned up or most efficient in combustion the PAHs are emitted into the atmosphere. Many useful products such as mothballs, blacktop, and creosote wood preservatives contain PAHs. They are also found at low concentrations in some special-purpose skin creams and anti-dandruff shampoos that contain coal tars.

Automobile exhaust, industrial emissions and smoke from burning wood, charcoal and tobacco contain high levels of PAHs. In general, more PAHs form when materials burn at low temperatures, such as in wood fires or cigarettes. High-temperature furnaces produce fewer PAHs. Fires can form fine PAH particles. They bind to ash particles and can move long distances through the air. Some PAHs can dissolve in water. PAHs can enter groundwater from ash, tar, or creosote that is improperly disposed in landfills.

Breathing: Most people are exposed to PAHs when they breathe smoke, auto emissions or industrial exhausts. Most exhausts contain many different PAH compounds. People with the highest exposures are smokers, people who live or work with smokers, roofers, road builders and people who live near major highways or industrial sources.

Considering the fragile nature of a fetus and the rapidity in which it grows, the intact of these compounds can effect respiratory and nervous systems. For those living and working near exhaust fumes from autos the following effects may result: 

Cancer: Benzo(a)pyrene, a common PAH, is shown to cause lung and skin cancer in laboratory animals. Other PAHs are not known to have this effect. Extracts of various types of smoke containing PAHs caused lung tumors in laboratory animals. Cigarette smoke will cause lung cancer.

Reproductive Effects: Reproductive problems and problems in unborn babies’ development have occurred in laboratory animals that were exposed to benzo(a)pyrene. Other PAHs have not been studied enough to determine whether they cause reproductive problems.

Organ Systems: A person’s lungs, liver, skin, and kidneys can be damaged by exposure.

The Short List

The chemicals listed above were just a few of the potentially hazardous fumes from automobiles being dispersed into our atmosphere daily. We don't think about it because we really can't see these gases as they dissipate into the sky. However, not only aren't we getting much needed exercise, those walking, strolling or running adjacent to the highway are effected in immeasurable ways. 

The Fetal Circulatory System

Research Shows The Fetus Takes In Much More

Throughout the fetal stage of development, the maternal blood supplies the fetus with O2 and nutrients and carries away its wastes. The concentration of hemoglobin in fetal blood is about 50 % greater than in maternal blood. Fetal hemoglobin is slightly different chemically and has a greater affinity for O2 than maternal hemoglobin. At a particular oxygen partial pressure, fetal hemoglobin can carry 20-30% more O2 than maternal hemoglobin.

“During most of pregnancy, the placenta separating mother and fetus is only one cell thick,” Koren tells me. “But it has an array of mechanisms to help it do its job of protecting the fetus.” These subcellular tools, he explains, include tiny pumps that expel toxins before they can do any damage, immune agents that guard the placenta’s perimeter, and placental enzymes that chemically break down intruding molecules. This armamentarium does an impressive job of blocking bacteria from reaching the fetus, but it lets other substances sail right through.

“The criteria that determine whether a molecule crosses the placenta include its size, its electrical charge, and its solubility,” says Koren. “Not, notice, whether it is harmful or not.” Particles that are small, that are neutrally charged, and that easily dissolve in fat will be waved past the placenta’s layers of security, regardless of their potential toxicity. [Source]

Now that this link has been made between automobile exhaust fumes and brain development leading to autism, we must be even more vigilant. We can now look to the interior of our homes for chemical vapors from all kinds of manufactured products. 

We used to have a saying, "Better Living Through Chemistry." As a naturalist, I remain in opposition to this premise. 

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About the Author

Debby Bruck, CHOM is a Homeopath, the founder and administrator of Homeopathy World Community a platform for homeopaths to share and learn from each other.  Debby believes that homeopathy is the wave of the future and provides hope and healing to those who have tried every other approach. Follow Debby on Twitter. All Hubpage blogs written by Debby Bruck are for informational purposes only. Please contact your healthcare professional. 


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    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      7 years ago

      Glad this was helpful.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

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    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      7 years ago

      Hello ICMN ~ It sounds like you got the wrong end of the stick on college caring for their students. When time allows, I will read more of the story, of which I see you've posted three hubs. In the meantime, sounds like you are doing most everything possible. You may be interested in reading my other Hub on Autism and Homeopathy.

      Continue your vigilance and I'm sure it will pay off for you. Another stress trigger to all illness centers around our emotions. If there's any way to do some mantras that will enable you to forgive any harm done by anyone in your life, while sending waves of love to yourself, you may see less flare ups. Keeping a diary or journal also helps track progress and is part of the healing journey. Blessings, Debby

    • icmn91 profile image


      7 years ago from Australia

      Have you heard of defective MTHFR genetic mutations. I was diagnosed with severe autism when young and it was only through an intensive home program, vitamins and the gluten free diet that I am able to function pretty well normally today.

      Unfortunately, some of my autism like behaviours came back at the end of last year before I discovered that it may have been due to the kitchen staff lying about the GF status of my food at the university I went to (more on my hubs).

      Thanks for a great post!

    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      7 years ago

      Hello Letitia ~ Innovative thinking to bring the sensitivity to sound into the picture. We have so many types of pollution to contend with in every day life. Very possibly some kind of sensitivity during development may add to the increase in autism.

      Thanks for visiting. Blessings, Debby

    • LetitiaFT profile image


      7 years ago from Paris via California

      Interesting. Could noise also contribute to the correlation?

    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      8 years ago

      Dear Faceless ~ Many thanks for compliments on the in-depth work that takes research and also my own opinion, like an editorial on my passion - healthy living. I'm concerned about how our environment becomes spoiled for inhabitance by living organisms due to the greed of large companies that dump trash and waste into the air, water and earth. Mother earth depends upon the little people to make a big shout, "STOP THIS POLLUTION!" I have written many articles about all topics you have listed either on Hubpages or on HomeopathyWorldCommunity website. Blessings, Debby

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Kate P 

      8 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Rated up, useful, awesome, and interesting. This is one of the most in-depth hubs I've come across, and that's saying a lot! To say there's a wealth of information here is an understatement!

      That said though, the topic itself is not new to me, but it's one I haven't delved into very much until now. It's not surprising that air pollution contributes to disease and problems during fetal development. I'd add some things to the list, although I know this hub is narrowed-in to one cause. I'd add agricultural pollution like insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and water pollution like fluoride into the equation as well. Great work! :)

    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      9 years ago

      I hope you are right!

    • agvulpes profile image


      9 years ago from Australia

      Debby I honestly feel confident that we will hand the planet over to a more educated and enlightened generation than our grandparents did when they passed on.

      The resources that we have at our disposal today means that the world is becoming more transparent.

      Keep on Hubbing :-)

    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      9 years ago

      Hello agvulpes ~ Thank you for visiting and commenting. As you speak, I'm wondering if the youngest and most effected generation will have the resources to deal with the remains of how we have left our world. Will they have the resolve, inner strength, voice, funding, and unity to turn things around? We can only pray for a better future.

    • agvulpes profile image


      9 years ago from Australia

      Your Hub paints an alarming picture for our children's children and their children. Lets pray that you are wrong, but I fear that you are spot on the money.

      You ask what happened to yesterday's idealists, most of them that I have followed have mutated into 'capitalists'.

      If we could remove greed from our human nature, would the world be a better place?

      Thank you for writing such a thought provoking hub :-)

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      There could done a lot more for environment but I guess somewhere there isn't enough money in it an that speaks.

    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      9 years ago

      I agree 100% and reading many of your super posts. Keep in touch.

    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      9 years ago

      I see I am already following you on twitter! It totally frustrates me that we did not switch over to solar in the 70"s with the long gas lines. Not for want of the technology. We could have been independent of our need for petroleum, with a result of more energy efficiency, cleaner environment, less greed, more harmony and balance on earth. What happened to the generation of the young idealists?

    • BkCreative profile image


      9 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      For sure - how can we not be affected by all the useless filth in this environment. Think it's not dirty? I live in NYC where snow is clean and crisp and white on day one. The next day it looks like charcoal. How can this be good?

      We have to stop buying all the garbage that pollutes. There was this news report about this couple who recycled all their soda bottles and demanded everyone else do so. Huh? No one on earth needs soda - which comes in these bottles which fill the landfills. Need I point out that this same couple drives to the store to buy these bottles of soda. We've become so simple-minded as a culture - and blameless.

      Thanks for the food for thought!

    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      9 years ago

      Dear Dali48 [Is your name Wolfgang?] ~ Going green is a massive project encompassing all fields of humanities interactions with the world. Instituting CLEAN ENERGY and the free power of the sun with the technology available will slowly clean up our environment. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Debby Bruck profile imageAUTHOR

      Debby Bruck 

      9 years ago

      Dear Fucsia ~ I appreciate your comment. These days it is hard to be shocked about much news coming to light. With Wikileaks fueling the fire, and the word "transparent" actually meaning we are vulnerable to exposure, in so many ways, the people must face the truth and act.

      The many issues that concern the health of all people and our environment are at stake.

    • fucsia profile image


      9 years ago

      This news is shocking. Air pollution is associated with many diseases and disorders, but I had never heard of autism.

      Thanks for sharing and for having exposed this important problem very well


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