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ADHD Linked to Smoking, Lead and Common Plastic Products

By Staff Writer

When a condition affects as many children and in such significant ways as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), we all want answers. What causes ADHD, and what can parents do to protect their kids?

While no one has definitive answers to these questions, and genetics may play the largest role, scientists have made a number of recent discoveries that offer insights into the origins of ADHD and can provide guidance for parents on preventing the disorder.

Don’t Smoke During Pregnancy. There are countless reasons not to smoke, but reducing the risk of ADHD is an important one for women who are mothers or are planning to have children. A recent study from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center showed that mothers who smoke while pregnant more than double the risk of having a child who will be diagnosed with ADHD. Researchers also estimated that up to one-fifth of children could avoid an ADHD diagnosis if pregnant women stopped smoking.

Take Precautions Against Lead Exposure. Lead exposure has been shown to interfere with brain development in people exposed during early childhood. In addition to lowering IQ and causing behavioral problems, lead exposure has recently been linked to ADHD.

In the Cincinnati study, researchers divided lead exposure into three categories: low, medium and high. Approximately 5.2 percent of children who had the lowest lead blood levels had ADHD, while 9.1 percent of children in the middle range and 13.6 percent of children in the highest range had ADHD. The study was based on data from 2,588 youth, ages 8 to 15, that had been collected during the 2001-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sets “action levels” for lead exposure (above 10 micrograms per deciliter), researchers now believe there are risks at much lower levels (the children in the Cincinnati study had an increased risk of ADHD at 1.3 micrograms or greater per deciliter). The most common sources of lead contamination are lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust from buildings built before 1978 and soil contaminated outside buildings painted with lead paint.

Even worse than lead exposure, according to the Cincinnati researchers, is being exposed to both tobacco in the womb and lead in childhood. They found that 28.6 percent of children who were exposed to maternal smoking and the highest level of lead had ADHD, compared with 5.2 percent of children with the lowest blood lead levels and no maternal smoking. In fact, said researchers, maternal smoking and lead exposure might be behind nearly 40 percent of ADHD cases.

"Tobacco and lead exposure each have their own important adverse effect," lead researcher Dr. Tanya Froehlich said in a Nov. 23 article on the ScienceDaily website. "But if children are exposed to both lead and prenatal tobacco, the combined effect is synergistic."

Minimize Exposure to Phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals commonly found in toys, cleaning materials and personal care items. They have been linked in past studies to hormone disruptions, birth defects, asthma and reproductive problems.

A recent study by Korean scientists, published in Biological Psychiatry, identified an association between phthalates and ADHD; namely, the higher the concentration of phthalate metabolites in the urine, the worse the ADHD symptoms. Although the researchers acknowledged that additional studies would be needed to prove that phthalate exposure caused ADHD symptoms, parents may be wise to limit their children’s early exposure to these chemicals.

Help for Children with ADHD

Studies like the ones mentioned above are going a long way toward helping parents prevent disorders like ADHD from affecting their children. And though prevention is always the primary goal, thousands of children are already struggling with ADHD and require assistance managing their condition.

If your child has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, there are specialized ADHD camps and schools for teens with ADHD that are designed to help increase focus, improve organizational skills, boost self-esteem and teach the basics of good decision-making.

Raising a child with ADHD is a challenge, but parents can take heart knowing that there are steps they can take to prevent attention deficit disorder and treatments available should their child need help managing their ADHD behaviors.


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