Autism spectrum disorder prevalence and associations with air concentrations of lead, mercury, and arsenic

Aisha S. Dickerson, Mohammad H. Rahbar, Amanda V. Bakian, Deborah A. Bilder, Rebecca A. Harrington, Sydney Pettygrove, Russell S. Kirby, Maureen S. Durkin, Inkyu Han, Lemuel A. Moyé, Deborah A. Pearson, Martha Slay Wingate, Walter M. Zahorodny

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Lead, mercury, and arsenic are neurotoxicants with known effects on neurodevelopment. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder apparent by early childhood. Using data on 4486 children with ASD residing in 2489 census tracts in five sites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, we used multi-level negative binomial models to investigate if ambient lead, mercury, and arsenic concentrations, as measured by the US Environmental Protection Agency National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment (EPA-NATA), were associated with ASD prevalence. In unadjusted analyses, ambient metal concentrations were negatively associated with ASD prevalence. After adjusting for confounding factors, tracts with air concentrations of lead in the highest quartile had significantly higher ASD prevalence than tracts with lead concentrations in the lowest quartile (prevalence ratio (PR) = 1.36; 95 '% CI: 1.18, 1.57). In addition, tracts with mercury concentrations above the 75th percentile (>1.7 ng/m3) and arsenic concentrations below the 75th percentile (≤0.13 ng/m3) had a significantly higher ASD prevalence (adjusted RR = 1.20; 95 % CI: 1.03, 1.40) compared to tracts with arsenic, lead, and mercury concentrations below the 75th percentile. Our results suggest a possible association between ambient lead concentrations and ASD prevalence and demonstrate that exposure to multiple metals may have synergistic effects on ASD prevalence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number407
JournalEnvironmental monitoring and assessment
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


  • Air quality
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Environment
  • Metals
  • Pollution


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