Intrauterine Exposure to Tobacco May Lead to ADHD in Children

Dr. Ballas Health Guide
  • Sometimes when discussing ADHD with a child’s parents, parents say something like: “I was the same way when I was that age.  Do you think I have ADHD?  Do you think my child got it from me?”  Parents sometimes feel guilty that they may have “given” their children ADHD, and if they are deciding to have more children, sometimes they feel helplessness about the prospect of passing ADHD on to future offspring.  While it is true that people who have relatives with ADHD are more likely to develop the illness themselves, it is by no means guaranteed.  Peer influences, school experiences, and family life all can influence the development of ADHD in a particular child.  Data from a new study has recently been presented that suggests that intrauterine exposure to tobacco and lead may also increase the chances a child will go on to develop ADHD.

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    Dr. Tanyan E. Froehlich presented data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected from 2001 and 2004 at a joint meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies and the Asian Society for Pediatric Research.  This data suggests that women who smoke while pregnant increases the chances that their baby will have ADHD by 2.4 times compared to women who didn’t smoke during their pregnancy.  Similarly, children in this study whose mother had significantly elevated lead levels while pregnant were 1.7 to 2.3 times more likely to develop ADHD.  Based on this and other data, Dr. Froehlich suggested that 35% of the cases of ADHD in the United States may be linked to lead or tobacco exposure in-utero.  These are striking findings, and they suggest, but do not prove a relationship between tobacco and lead exposure in utero to increasing the risk of developing ADHD. 


    These findings build on the results of previous studies that suggest that smoking and lead exposure during pregnancy can be harmful to the child’s medical and mental health.  Lead exposure has long been known to cause developmental delays and reduce intellectual functioning.  Tobacco has been implicated in many problems that can develop during pregnancy, during delivery, and in early childhood development.  Specifically, cigarette smoking has been shown to increase the chances of spontaneous abortion, premature delivery, and low birth rate.  Also, cigarette smoking during a pregnancy increases the chances of sudden infant death as well as abnormal behavioral and neurological development. 


    So while the findings of the study above need to be further evaluated, it does bring more attention to the concept that women who limit their exposure to harmful chemicals like lead and avoid unhealthy habits like smoking can benefit their children not just physically, but emotionally and behaviorally as well.  As always, I invite comments surrounding blog entries, but please feel free to send us questions you may have about any aspect of ADHD. 


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Published On: September 26, 2008