Columbia University’s study on ADHD and air pollution has suggested that exposure to polluted air during pregnancy increases the risk and odds of behavioral problems associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Mailman School of Public Health discovered that prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH (a component of air pollution), could influence the development of ADHD in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10 percent of children in the U.S. have one of three types of ADHD: inattentive ADHD, hyperactive/impulsive ADHD or both.
Published in the online journal Plos One, the authors followed 233 nonsmoking pregnant women and their children in New York City from pregnancy into their childhood. The researchers measured levels of PAH exposure in the mothers’ blood obtained at delivery. Childhood PAH exposure was measured by PAH metabolites in their urine at ages three or five years. ADHD behavior problems were assessed using the Conners’ Parent Rating Scale. The results revealed that children with mothers exposed to high levels of PAHs during their term had five times the number of ADHD symptoms relative to children whose mothers did not have high exposure to PAHs. The children exposed to the PAHs exhibited difficulties in focusing and maintaining attention.
This study marks the latest in a growing body of research that the center has compiled on PAHs and their link to behavioral and cognitive issues. Their tests have focused on developmental delays, reduced IQ and symptoms of anxiety/depression and ADHD; however, this is the first study to focus on pollutants and older children aged 7 to 12.
“This study suggests that exposure to PAH encountered in New York City air may play a role in childhood ADHD. Findings are concerning because attention problems are known to impact school performance, social relationships and occupational performance,” said Dr. Frederica Perera, lead author of the study.
In addition to genetics, environmental factors are believed to play a role in the development of ADHD. PAHs are toxic aerosols created by virtually anything that emits carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Although the mechanisms in which exposure leads to ADHD require further research, there are some possibilities.
Causes of PAHs
Some experts believe that PAHs disrupt the endocrine system, causing DNA damage and interfering with placental growth that can lead to decreased exchange of oxygen and nutrients. Another possible theory is that the pollutants are causing inflammation, inciting the body’s fight-or-flight response. The cascade of stress hormones set off by prenatal exposure to them could cause abnormalities to the cognitive structures being developed at the time. Some stress hormones such as cortisol slow down healing and tissue production, which offers another explanation for the developmental delays and possibly cases of ADHD seen in studies.
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