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Autism, Asthma & Air Quality

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

As an asthmatic, I have sometimes had the notion that air is like sex and money. You don’t really think much about it until you don’t have enough, although you can live a lot longer without sex and money, that’s for sure. But it’s not just about having enough. More and more research continues to emerge showing us that the quality of the air we breathe – both indoors and out – can have a major impact on our health, and in ways few people would imagine.

It’s common knowledge that indoor air pollutants such as radon are a major problem. In fact, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, according to the EPA. Exposure to airborne allergens, such as mold, can present in a variety of ailments as well, especially in sensitive individuals, such as asthmatics, young children and people with compromised immune systems. A 1999 Mayo Clinic study implicated mold in nearly all cases of chronic sinusitis, affecting 37 million Americans. In 2007, a groundbreaking study from Brown University even found a connection between indoor mold growth and depression.

The scientific community now knows that small, non-biological airborne particles, like those found along roadways and in industrial areas, largely from automotive exhaust and combustion, can cause heart disease. These particles trigger an immune response which can amplify allergic reactions, and exacerbate asthmatic conditions. It’s believed that much of the asthma epidemic in lower socio-economic areas is magnified as a result of this dynamic, combined with higher concentrations of indoor allergens – cockroaches, rodents, mold, etc. – and poor access to quality health care.

What’s emerged more recently is far less obvious, and underscores the tradeoff we often see between the pros and cons of industrialized society. Last year, Harvard released the findings from the first national study of the sort, and concluded that there is a direct link between autism and the mother’s exposure to air pollution while pregnant. They found that prenatal exposure to diesel exhaust and mercury in the air doubled the risk of a child developing autism. Other compounds were also correlated to autism, but the diesel particulate and mercury ranked highest. At the end of last year, more research emerged on this subject, showing a genetic link as well, so, as usual, the story isn’t over.

Naturally, these things end up generating more questions than answers. The big one is how to reduce exposure to, and prevent/reduce pollution. As urban populations grow, so too does the amount of transportation-related pollution, and one could assume that the stats for asthma and autism would follow suit. So too would healthcare costs and the more tragic human cost; lower quality of life for all affected. Should we be prescribing HEPA filters to every pregnant mother in certain zip codes? What about the time spent outside? I’m not proposing solutions here, so much as I am expressing concern. One in 68 children (and 1 in 42 for boys) develop autism, and the numbers are on the rise, making it the fastest growing developmental disorder in the US. And the explosion of asthma has grown to the point where it is often called an epidemic. These two health issues, which were long shrouded in mystery, are now appearing to be more and more environmental in origin.

Perhaps those arguing for alternatives to combustion-based energy, due to concerns about climate change, should also include these snippets about pollution in their talking points. It certainly looks like global warming is not the only thing to consider.

Jason Earle is the founder and CEO of Mycelium Holdings LLC, the parent company of 1-800-GOT-MOLD? and MycoLab USA.

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