An environmental research letter highlights the potential correlation between weather-related nitrous oxide levels and prenatal stress contributing to autism spectrum disorders (ASD).


Increasing global awareness of climate change piques public curiosity about human-environment interactions. Environmental effects on health are of particular interest lately, as they relate to the etiology of various disorders. Exploring this correlation between health and environment, researchers mapping developmental patterns with exposure to prenatal stress have identified a link between the stress incurred during severe weather-related events (e.g. hurricanes and tropical storms) and susceptibility to autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

In a recent research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Pediatrics (2017), Keith Fluegge, BS, of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research in Cleveland, Ohio proposed that nitrous oxide acts as a key environmental pollutant potentially linked to increased risk of autism spectrum disorders. Previous studies have provided evidence regarding fluxes in nitrous oxide levels following hurricanes in a given area. Further investigation has suggested that air pollutants such as nitrous oxide may be associated with an increased risk of psychiatric side effects and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Fluegge calls for deeper exploration into how climatological factors may affect the prevalence of ASD in areas of the United States that experience higher frequencies of tropical storms. Long-lasting effects of such major weather-related events often include significant increases in nitrous oxide emissions. In some cases, these increased nitrous oxide emissions could last between 7 to 27 months post-storm.

Elevated maternal stress levels following a hurricane appear to contribute to the disruption of fetal developmental patterns, which may result in neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD. However, many questions around this possible environmental link remain unanswered.

As Fluegge suggests, future research into potential environmental links to autism spectrum disorders should explore the role of nitrous oxide as it interacts with different biological mechanisms which may contribute to neuropathology. By examining the depth of various human-environment interactions, we stand to gain valuable insight into mitigating risks for certain health conditions.


Written By: Jennifer Newton

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