Environmental Chemicals and Autism: A Scoping Review of the Human and Animal Research

Katherine E. Pelch, Ashley L. Bolden, and Carol F. Kwiatkowski (2019). “Environmental Chemicals and Autism: A Scoping Review of the Human and Animal Research.” Environmental Health Perspectives published online April 3, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP4386

Background:

Estimates of autism prevalence have increased dramatically over the past two decades. Evidence suggests environmental factors may contribute to the etiology of the disorder.

Objectives:

This scoping review aimed to identify and categorize primary research and reviews on the association between prenatal and early postnatal exposure to environmental chemicals and the development of autism in epidemiological studies and rodent models of autism.

Methods:

PubMed was searched through 8 February 2018. Included studies assessed exposure to environmental chemicals prior to 2 months of age in humans or 14 d in rodents. Rodent studies were considered relevant if they included at least one measurement of reciprocal social communicative behavior or repetitive and stereotyped behavior. Study details are presented in interactive displays using Tableau Public.

Results:

The search returned 21,603 unique studies, of which 54 epidemiological studies, 46 experimental rodent studies, and 50 reviews were deemed relevant, covering 152 chemical exposures. The most frequently studied exposures in humans were particulate matter (n=14n=14), mercury (n=14n=14), nonspecific air pollution (n=10n=10), and lead (n=10n=10). In rodent studies, the most frequently studied exposures were chlorpyrifos (n=9n=9), mercury (n=6n=6), and lead (n=4n=4).

Discussion:

Although research is growing rapidly, wide variability exists in study design and conduct, exposures investigated, and outcomes assessed. Conclusions focus on recommendations to guide development of best practices in epidemiology and toxicology, including greater harmonization across these fields of research to more quickly and efficiently identify chemicals of concern. In particular, we recommend chlorpyrifos, lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) be systematically reviewed in order to assess their relationship with the development of autism. There is a pressing need to move forward quickly and efficiently to understand environmental influences on autism in order to answer current regulatory questions and inform treatment and prevention efforts.

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