A recent study shows that a significant amount of ADHD we’re seeing in children today could come from air pollution.
The apparent culprit is a class of compounds called P-A-H (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that’s produced by burning any organic material: cigarettes, gas stoves, cars, and even barbequed meat. The study is published in JAMA Psychiatry.
Dr. Bradley Peterson from Los Angeles Children’s Hospital worked on a study involving 620 children in upper Manhattan who have been tracked for symptoms since before they were born. According to Peterson, brain scans over time found physical changes directly tied to the amount of pollution in neighborhoods where the children’s mothers lived when they were pregnant.
“The kids who had the biggest brain abnormalities – had a lot of symptoms of ADHD – they tend to leap before they look, act before they think,” Peterson said. “They also had slow processing speeds; even if they get the right answer, it took a while to get there.”
The pollution appears to affect not the gray matter in the brain, where information is stored, but the white matter. White matter allows brain regions to communicate with each other.
The effects of pollution on children’s brains is irreversible, Peterson said. Because, “this is a consequence of the impact of the environment on how the architecture of the brain is put together.”
The study suggests pollution causes a unique form of ADHA. It’s a reasonable hypothesis that the increase in air pollution is contributing to AHDA, Peterson said.
So what do you do if you’re pregnant?
“Certainly don’t smoke tobacco and avoid second hand smoke,” Peterson said. “Don’t follow in the path of diesel fuel trucks.” Basically, don’t get stuck in traffic.
“The difficulty is people can’t change where they live or work easily,” Peterson said.
He said the issue needs to be tackled at the policy level. Those changes in policy will have a huge impact on brains of developing children.
Dr. Peterson said that he is generally anti-regulation, but considering these findings, air pollution is one area where there is no good alternative but to impose limits.
However, there is a narrow window where pollution is the most harmful.
“It has to be in pregnancy – we believe – and early childhood,” Peterson said. Future studies will show whether pollution effects the brain later on in life