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How the Air You Breathe Can Harm You, from Autism to Fatigue to Brain Fog (and 5 Ways to Detox Your Pollutants)

DSC_0144I write a lot about food as information, hormones, self love, and about tweaking your lifestyle in a way that will directly benefit you. Whether it’s to upgrade mood, or lose weight, or have a blissful night’s sleep, most of the people in my tribe are on a personal mission to reclaim health and vitality.

But in some cases, it’s important to recognize who or what else we might be helping – or harming – with your health. Take the air you breathe, for instance.

Enter the Nurse’s Health Study

In a recent study conducted by Harvard, researchers found that women who lived in areas with higher levels of air pollution were two times as likely to give birth to children with autism. This extensive study began in 1989 at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where I happened to be hanging out as a medical student. It involved 116,430 nurses and from that group, and the authors studied 325 women who had at least one child with autism, compared to 22,000 control women with children who did not have autism.

This study has implications far beyond autism. Mercury toxicity is something I see commonly in my practice, and I've experienced it myself. We all have a sense that pollution is bad for our health, but this is gigantic news because of the direct relationship between the crap you breath and the health of your baby.

In other words: Listen UP!

Researchers looked at levels of diesel, lead, manganese, mercury, methylene chloride and other pollutants and when they took into account factors such as smoking, economic standing, and geography, they found a strong link between levels of air pollution and the percentage of children born with autism.

Oh baby, baby

How was I supposed to know

That somethin' wasn't right here

- Britney Spears, ...Baby, One More Time

The chemicals listed in the study are known neurotoxins, and are also known to be passed from the mother to her developing fetus.

Home, Toxic Home

What’s especially scary about this study is that I am sure none of these mothers were actively trying to harm a developing fetus. In fact, I’m sure that most of them were taking their prenatal vitamins, exercising, and avoiding fish and alcohol. In this case, it was their environment that was toxic.

This makes the important point that while we may be making smart health decisions within our day-to-day life, there are other important factors to take into consideration. If your town is plagued with smog, or you live near a freeway, or there is a higher-than-average amount of particulate matter in the air you breathe, your decision to live (and drive, and have a family) in that area may affect more people than you know.

Prenatal Care(ful)

While I know that we can’t all afford to move to the pristine wilderness (and that it would quickly stop being pristine!), there are still steps we can all take to make ourselves, our future children, and our environments cleaner.

1. Do a little research. See what the EPA says about your neighborhood. Could it be negatively affecting the health of you and your family?

2. Remove those shoes. You’ve heard me rave about shoegasms, but keep those shoes at the door. You carry those nasty pollutants into your house, where you spend most of your time and sleep. Keep the toxin count down by keeping the shoes at the door.

3. Buy organic food, clothes, and home furnishings. That includes your sofa (full of flame retardants) and mattress (ditto). Not only will you absorb fewer toxins but hopefully you will help shape an economy in which all businesses are held to the highest green standards. 4. Be a conscientious commuter. Carpool, take public transit, bike, walk, or invest in a hybrid or electric vehicle. Good karma points, and you may burn a few calories in the process!

5. Reduce, reuse and recycle. It isn’t just cars that pollute – manufacturing plants and other factories are a major source of the contaminants in our world. Reduce their output by reducing your consumption.

While this study is certainly eye-opening, there is still lots of follow up to be done. Next, researchers will have to determine which air pollutants are the most harmful, and which are closely linked to autism diagnoses. They’ll have to test the blood of the mothers and their children to get exact toxin levels. And maybe sometime in the not-too distant future, we’ll have some effective strategies that can help expectant mothers seriously reduce their exposure to pollution and particulate matter.

What steps have you taken to make your environment healthier? Share with me in the comments below. 


Jurewicz J, Polańska K, Hanke W. Exposure to widespread environmental toxicants and children's cognitive development and behavioral problems. Int J Occup Med Environ Health. 2013 May 28.

Kim M, Bae M, Na H, Yang M. J Environ Sci Health C. Environmental toxicants--induced epigenetic alterations and their reversers. Environ Carcinog Ecotoxicol Rev. 2012

Roberts AL, Lyall K, Hart JE, Laden F, Just AC, Bobb JF, Koenen KC, Ascherio A, Weisskopf MG. Perinatal Air Pollutant Exposures and Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Children of Nurses’ Health Study II Participants. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2013. http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1206187/


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