Some parents of children with ADHD have long speculated that environmental toxins might play a role in the development of the condition. After all, rates of ADHD have skyrocketed in recent years, rising from 7.8% of 4- to 17-year-olds in 2003 to 22% in 2011. Surely, the thinking goes, something must be causing this epidemic. A new study offers to explain a portion of the increase. Researchers claim that exposure to a common pesticide may predispose children, especially boys, to ADHD. The study was published in Environmental Health.
Can Pesticides Cause ADHD?
An Environmental Protection Agency ban on two of the most common pesticides has led to increased use of pesticides known as pyrethroids. Now the most commonly used pesticides in residential and public health settings, pyrethroids are also increasingly common in agricultural settings. Though less toxic than banned organophosphates, some animal studies have found that pyrethroids can increase hyperactivity and impulsivity in male mice.
To explore whether these pesticides affect children in similar ways, researchers pulled data on 687 children from the 2000-2001 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This year marks the only year of the study that included details about children’s ADHD symptoms, as well as measures of biomarkers for the presence of pyrethroid.
Because the original survey researchers collected urine from half of survey participants in the 8- to 11- and 12- to 15-year-old demographic groups, researchers exploring the effects of pesticides had a ready-made control group for exploring the effects of pyrethroids. They found that boys with detectable urinary 3-PBA, a measure of exposure to pyrethroids, were 300% more likely to experience ADHD than those without the biomarker. For every 10-fold increase in 3-PBA levels, hyperactivity and impulsivity increased by 50%. Girls who were exposed to pyrethroids did not experience a similar increase in ADHD symptoms.
Carey Heller, PsyD, a GoodTherapy.org ADHD Topic Expert, cautions that it’s not just pesticide exposure that affects ADHD symptoms. “Different environments tend to make symptoms of ADHD more visible than others. For many children, concerns about ADHD first get raised when they enter school because the traditional school setting requires them to stay focused and sit still for long periods of time. If the same individuals were at an active summer sports camp, chances are at least some of their symptoms would be less visible. Also, the severity of one child’s symptoms compared to others in their class and the impact that the symptoms have on disruptions to the class as a whole are also important to keep in mind. Usually the greater the disruption, the more noticeable the symptoms are to teachers,” he said.
Heller highlighted the need for treatment. “No matter what concerns you have about your child, if you have concerns, it is always best to seek a consultation with an appropriate professional to determine what is causing your child’s difficulties and obtain effective treatment,” he said.
- Novotney, A. (2014, April). Is it really ADHD? Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/04/adhd.aspx
- Study links exposure to common pesticide with ADHD in boys. (2015, June 1). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150601122535.htm
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