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(France) Scientists link "sharp rise in autism cases" to pollution

April 2, 2024, Focus: Rise in autism cases: Are environmental factors partly to blame?

How to explain the sharp rise in autism cases in industrialised countries in recent years?

The neurodevelopmental disorder is partly hereditary, but the finger is also increasingly being pointed at pollution. Scientists in southern France are currently investigating the role of environmental factors in autism by following 1,700 families over 10 years. It's a groundbreaking study in a country that lags behind in autism research and diagnosis. To mark World Autism Awareness Day, FRANCE 24 went to Montpellier to meet one of these families. Emerald Maxwell and Sophian Aubin report.

News video

Four year old Elaina has been diagnosed with autism. It’s situation that more and more parents.

. . . are finding themselves in.

According to the few studies carried out in France, the prevalence of autism has tripled in 10 years and now affects one percent of the population. 

The surge of this neurodevelopmental  disorder can be partly explained by more awareness and screening, and it tends to run in families. 

But genetic testing doesn’t always provide the answers parents are looking for.   .. .

The mother says she would like to know the cause, where it came from.

We’ve done all the genetic testing and found nothing.

Living with it on a daily basis is hard, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

The family volunteered for a study, the Marianme Cohort  


Scientists point out that it’s impossible for ourgenes to evolve in such a short space of time. What has changed however is our environment.

Dr. Amaria Baghdadli, Montpellier U. Hospital:

Genetics plays a role, of course, but not on its own. It comes into play in association with our environments, in the broader sense of the term.

In the United States, we see a link in case control studies between exposure to pollution, in particular proximity to oil wells and exposure to fine particles and a higher prevalence of autism in children living near these areas.

A correlation, yes, but neuroscience has yet to demonstrate  a causal link between environmental factors and autism. 

That’s where the Marianne Cohort comes in. The first study of its kind in Europe is tracking 1.700 children over a decade, from a few months before their birth and throughout early childhood.


Our exposure to chemicals has increased a hundred fold over the last 50 year.

We’re exposed to chemicals on a daily basis through a variety of roots such as the skin with, for example, skin care products, the shower you may have used this morning or via food, like eating vegetables that contain pesticides. . . .

The mother says they can’t afford organic food, as she’s buying Coke and a pizza.


Pesticides and pollution that threaten not just our bodies, but also our brains.

Scientist Xavier Briffault:  

We need people’s minds to be functional. People’s inner selves have become a public health issue.

Whereas polluting used to be bad because it destroyed nature, now polluting hurts us. . . .


Chloe had to stop work to look after her daughter. Elaina isn’t getting the help and services she needs, like eighty percent of autistic children in France, according to the country’s Autism Information Service.

The special needs state schools are oversubscribed, and on her mother’s salary, a private school is out of reach.


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