Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most commonly diagnosed neurobehavioral disorders of childhood. According to the CDC, approximately 11% of children 4-17 years of age (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives. And that number is continuing to rise.
Despite extensive time and research devoted to understanding ADHD, the causes are still not completely understood. In an effort to better understand why ADHD is so prevalent, a new study found an increase in ADHD rates in children exposed to a certain type of air pollutant prenatally, and who also suffer hardship at home. This concerning group of air pollutants are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which come from the burning of wood, trash, and fossil fuels.
It has been established that pregnant low-income women are more likely to live in polluted areas and more likely to have extensive daily stress, and these two factors combined can impact the health of their fetuses. This new study is the first to link breathing polluted air (PAHs) and living in a stressful home environment with an increased likelihood of developing ADHD in children.
I had an opportunity to catch up with the Molly Rauch, the Public Health Policy Director for Moms Clean Air Force to ask her a few questions about the significance of this new study.
What is the significance of this new study linking higher rates of ADHD to children exposed to high prenatal air pollution and chronic stress including a lack of food, clothing, and shelter?
In our country, pollution is not evenly distributed. Poor communities tend to be disproportionately exposed to industrial pollution. This study adds to the growing recognition that we can’t look just at pollution or just at poverty when we study the health impacts of these problems. We need to look at them together. They all too often occur together, and they each may be making the impacts of the other factor worse.
When people think of air pollution, they often think of dirty stuff getting into our lungs and causing problems in that organ. But the health impacts of air pollution can go far beyond the lungs. Air pollution can cause heart attacks and stroke; it can shorten pregnancy and reduce the birth weight of babies; and, as this study shows, it can harm our children’s brains.
How can we bring more attention to this important issue?
We obviously need to support the kind of scientific research that Dr. Perera (the lead author of the new study, and the director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health) is doing, which is contributing so much to this important conversation. I also think it’s important for educators and social workers to learn about the emerging research highlighting the interaction of pollution and poverty. But for most of us, bringing attention to this issue means talking about it in our schools, in our places of worship, in our neighborhoods, and with our elected officials. Write letters, make calls, and ask for solutions. We know how to make this problem better. Less pollution means healthier kids.
How can we support communities impacted by these findings?
If you are trying to support an impacted community in your city or state, it’s important to learn what they want and need instead of telling them what they should do. So, learn about the pollution problems in your area, and then talk to your lawmakers about why clean air is important. Get involved in local initiatives to reduce air pollution, whether it’s electrifying truck fleets or increasing public transportation options or something else. And make your voice heard at the national level, too. Our Representatives and Senators need to hear that you support our federal pollution protections, such as the Clean Air Act. Everyone has the right to breathe clean air.