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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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June 18th, 2013
07:21 PM ET

Study: Pollution associated with higher risk of autism

Autism remains a largely misunderstood neurodevelopmental disorder that experts say is very much on the rise.

A recent, albeit controversial, survey of parents by the CDC suggests that as many as 1 in 50 school-aged children could have some form of the disorder.

On Tuesday, a brand new study had parents and experts talking. According to research conducted by a number of physicians including several from the Harvard School of Public Health, living in an area with high levels of air pollution may be linked with a woman's chances of having a child with autism.

The team shared their views in 'Environmental Health Perspectives' - a journal of peer-reviewed research supported by The National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"What we found in our study was that there's an association between women living in areas that have high levels of pollution, and their children's risk of having autism," said Andrea Roberts, research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We don't know whether this is causal or not."

The study found that women who were exposed to the highest levels of diesel or mercury in the air were twice as likely to have a child with autism, than women who lived in the cleanest parts of the sample.

Roberts said wealthier and more highly-educated individuals are more likely to have their child diagnosed with autism.

"Since wealthier, more highly-educated people tend to live in the cities which are more polluted, we thought this could be a cause of the association, but we were able to adjust for these factors and they didn't explain our results," said Roberts.

"Our study needs to be followed up to try to figure out which of these pollutants might actually cause an increased risk of autism, if any of them," said Roberts.

As for safeguards expectant mothers can take, Roberts said there are a number of precautions that could reduce the risk of autism, such as, "taking prenatal vitamins or eating foods rich in healthy nuts, low mercury fish, avoiding cigarette smoke, and maybe trying to maintain a healthy rate while pregnant, because diabetes has been associated with autism."

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