Prenatal exposure to air pollution as a potential risk factor for autism and ADHD

Environ Int. 2019 Dec;133(Pt A):105149. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2019.105149. Epub 2019 Oct 16.


Genetic and environmental factors both contribute to the development of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). One suggested environmental risk factor for ASD and ADHD is air pollution, but knowledge of its effects, especially in low-exposure areas, are limited. Here, we investigate risks for ASD and ADHD associated with prenatal exposure to air pollution in an area with air pollution levels generally well below World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines. We used an epidemiological database (MAPSS) consisting of virtually all (99%) children born between 1999 and 2009 (48,571 births) in the study area, in southern Sweden. MAPSS consists of data on modelled nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels derived from a Gaussian dispersion model; maternal residency during pregnancy; perinatal factors collected from a regional birth registry; and socio-economic factors extracted from Statistics Sweden. All ASD and ADHD diagnoses in our data were undertaken at the Malmö and Lund Departments of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, using standardized diagnostic instruments. We used logistic regression analyses to obtain estimates of the risk of developing ASD and ADHD associated with different air pollution levels, with adjustments for potential perinatal and socio-economic confounders. In this longitudinal cohort study, we found associations between air pollution exposure during the prenatal period and and the risk of developing ASD. For example, an adjusted Odds Ratio (OR) of 1.40 and its 95% Confidence Interval (CI) (95% CI: 1.02-1.93) were found when comparing the fourth with the first quartile of NOx exposure. We did not find similar associations on the risk of developing ADHD. This study contributes to the growing evidence of a link between prenatal exposure to air pollution and autism spectrum disorders, suggesting that prenatal exposure even below current WHO air quality guidelines may increase the risk of autism spectrum disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Air Pollution / adverse effects*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / etiology*
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Nitric Oxide / analysis
  • Nitrogen Oxides / analysis
  • Odds Ratio
  • Pregnancy
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Sweden


  • Nitrogen Oxides
  • Nitric Oxide