Study Finds Autism in Children Linked to Mothers’ Exposure to Solvents at Work

Regular exposure to paint, nail polish, cleaning products and other solvents on the job could impact whether your child is born with autism.

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that women who are in regular contact with these chemicals at work are 50% more likely to have a child with autism than mothers without occupational exposure. Greater solvent exposure was associated with an 85% higher autism risk.

Solvents are chemicals that dissolve other substances. Solvents include alcohols, degreasers, paint thinners and stain and varnish removers.

“If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, talk to your employer to find out what solvents are used in your workplace,” Erin McCanlies, lead author of the study and a NIOSH researcher, told Reuters. “If the solvents you work with might be hazardous to your health or pregnancy, or you aren’t sure if they might be hazardous, talk to your doctor,” McCanlies said.

The study’s findings contribute to a growing body of evidence pointing to the role of environmental and occupational factors in autism spectrum disorder. Experts have long warned about prenatal exposure to solvents and the link to birth defects.

For example, solvent exposure could increase a woman’s chances of having a miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth, a low birth weight baby or a baby with a birth defect, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Many solvents also pass into breast milk.

According to the CDC, the types of jobs that are often in contact with solvents are:

  • Laboratory workers
  • People who work in printing shops
  • Painters
  • Dry cleaners
  • Metalworkers
  • Oil and chemical industry workers
  • Artists
  • Cosmetologists, beauticians, and nail salon technicians

Study researchers used data from work histories for 750 mothers and 891 fathers to assess the frequency and intensity of any occupational exposure before and during pregnancy for 16 agents that have been linked to neurological or congenital abnormalities in children.

The substances included medicines, metals, pesticides, anesthetics, asphalt, brake fluid, plastics and polymers, radiation, cleaners/disinfectants and solvents (including paint chemicals and degreasers) as well as other chemicals.

The study included parents of 537 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and 414 children with typical neurodevelopment.

“The study adds to our understanding that synthetic chemicals can contribute substantially to the origins of autism,” Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an environmental medicine researcher at New York University School of Medicine, told Reuters.

“Though it focuses on work-related exposures, the study raises concerns that exposures to these chemicals, which is common in the U.S. population, can also contribute,” Trasande said.

The March of Dimes, which works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality, urges women who work with solvents at work to protect themselves during pregnancy by:

  • Talking to your supervisor and letting him or her know you are pregnant. Ask for a temporary change in job responsibilities to keep you and your baby safe during pregnancy.
  • Air out your work area. Open a window or use a fan.
  • Wear safety clothes like gloves and a face mask.
  • Don’t eat or drink in your work area. Wash your hands before eating.

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