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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Pitt Study Examines Environmental Risk Factors for Childhood Autism

PITTSBURGH, June 9, 2011 The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) has launched a multi-year study to help identify environmental and other factors that may put children at risk for developing conditions within the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). The Study of Environmental Risk Factors for Childhood Autism is being conducted throughout southwestern Pennsylvania in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

ASDs are a group of developmental disabilities that become evident early in a child's life and cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 1 in 110 children born in the United States had been diagnosed with ASDs and the rates in recent years have increased. The causes and contributing factors of ASDs are poorly understood, but genetic, environmental and biological factors are thought to be involved. 

“Autism spectrum disorders are a major health concern,” said Evelyn Talbott, Dr.P.H., professor of epidemiology at GSPH and principal investigator of the study. “We hope that the results of this study will help lead to a better understanding of the role of environmental factors in ASDs.”

The research study involves the parents of 2- to 5-year-old children who have been diagnosed with ASD conditions, as well as the parents of children who do not have ASD conditions. Parents will be interviewed by telephone by trained GSPH staff and asked about residences, jobs, hobbies, medical conditions, medication use and other factors during the mother’s pregnancy and the child’s infancy. In addition, information on air pollution and other environmental exposures for each residential area will be obtained.

Researchers will then attempt to determine if there have been substantial differences in environmental and other exposures in children with an autism spectrum disorder compared to children without ASDs. Approximately 750 parents will be asked to participate in this study over the next three years. 

Constance M. Bayles, Ph.D., of GSPH’s Department of Epidemiology is the project director. Co-investigators include Ravi Sharma, Ph.D., Department of Behavioral and Community Health, and Vincent Arena, Ph.D., Department of Biostatistics, both of the University of Pittsburgh.

The study was funded by the Heinz Endowments.

For more information about participating in the study, visit or call Dr. Bayles at 412-624-3122. 

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