Research Activity

CNN article: “Pesticide Exposure During Pregnancy May Increase Autism Risk”

Secondary source:

Primary Source:

Summary of CNN article:

The article published on CNN summarizes the findings of a research team at UC Davis that discovered that expectant mothers exposed to agricultural pesticides may put their children at a greater risk for autism. The article briefly describes that the researchers looked at the medical records of 970 women and found that pregnant women were 2/3 as likely to give birth to autistic children if they lived within a mile within range of an area that was treated with three different types of pesticides: organophosphates, pyrtheroids, and carbamates. The areas included parks, golf courses, fields, and roadsides. The article then says that, along with those findings, the study also proved that women exposed to pesticides during the second and third trimester of pregnancy are even more likely to give birth to a child with autism of developmental delays.

Summary of Primary Source: 

The primary post focuses on not only their own findings, but also a lot of the other evidence that had been previously discovered that linked an increase in autism to exposure to pesticides. Then, in the method, the paper goes into detail about the CHARGE study (the name of the study itself, that the CNN article did not mention), an ongoing study that has enrolled over 1,000 children whose mothers answer questions about possible exposure to pesticides during their pregnancy. CHARGE found that organophosphate was the most common pesticide found near homes of the pregnant mothers. The study also found that children with autism were 60% more likely to have mothers that were pregnant in homes near organophosphates. Along with this, researchers found that pesticide exposure in women was 26%, while male children were 31%, which means that male children had a slightly greater risk of being exposed to pesticides. Lastly, the researchers found that exposure to two or all three of the pesticides did not contribute to a greater risk of autism than exposure to one single pesticide did.

Do you think this popular piece accurately represents the scientific finding? 

I think that CNN did a moderate job in presenting the information. While they were very brief, and did not even mention the name of the study nor some of the lesser important statistics, they still presented the information fairly accurately and objectively. CNN did not over-exaggerate or get the general research findings wrong.

How are these two different?

The CNN article was very brief in presenting the information and did not give any background information on the study or how it took place. The primary paper described the exact process of selecting participants, how they were studied, and a surplus of additional information including statistics, background information, and past research on the subject.

Where are the aspects exaggerated or misrepresented?

CNN stated that the researchers looked at 970 medical records of the participants. However, in the primary source, nothing is stated about that. In fact, the primary source says that they studied over 1,000 children and the mothers filled out questionnaires. Having a participant fill out a questionnaire is much different from checking their medical records.

How would you improve the popular media piece?

To improve the CNN article, I would start by actually giving the name of the study (CHARGE). Then, I would correctly summarize the process in which the researchers studied the subjects and get rid of the false “970 statistic.”  Finally, I would remove the section of the article that talks about a link between race and autism because it is not the primary subject of the article (after all, the title says nothing about race and autism).

3 responses to “Research Activity”

  1. Elbert Y. Gong says:

    I agree that CNN could have given more information on the CHARGE study itself, which pesticides are more common, the exposure difference between genders, etc. Also, I think the title of the CNN article is a bit misleading. The scientific study only did a random sample survey of mothers. They found a correlation, but that does not imply causation. The title of the article, however, suggests a causation.

  2. Carlos Aizenman says:

    I completely agree with Elbert’s point that just finding a correlation doesn’t really mean much. Plus the size of the effect, while it sounds big, is not really so. 60% more likely to develop autism means that if prevalence of autism is about 2 in 320 cases, then in areas near pesticides, the prevalence would be about 3 in 320.

  3. Hannah Bukzin says:

    I had the same issue with my popular media piece. Not enough information was given on the actual primary source itself.

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