What Are the 3 Environmental Causes of ADHD?

April 16, 2021


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that affects behavior. It reduces the ability to focus and causes impulsive behavior or hyperactivity. While it is common in children, ADHD also affects adults.

Some of the symptoms to watch out for include obsessive activity, poor organization, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. The inability to concentrate, fidgeting, and mood swings can also point to ADHD. Like most mental health conditions, ADHD results from various factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors.

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To help you understand better, below are three major environmental causes of ADHD.


1. Maternal Smoking, Alcohol and Substance Use

Maternal smoking during pregnancy is one of the most common environmental causes of ADHD in children and adults. Tobacco smoke affects both pre and postnatal development as it interferes with placental functions by limiting blood flow to the uterus.

This reduces oxygen supply to the baby, causing malnutrition and a host of other problems that eventually lead to cognitive development defects and behavioral issues. Although maternal smoking can lead to ADHD in babies, mothers who don’t smoke but are exposed to tobacco smoke while pregnant also increase the risk of ADHD in their children.

Heavy maternal drinking during pregnancy can also lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. The condition comes with symptoms similar to ADHD, which include hyperactivity and inattention. Alcohol, therefore, predisposes the baby to ADHD. Although tobacco and alcohol are the most notable causes of ADHD, drugs like cocaine and heroin can also lead to mental health and emotional issues. Prenatal cocaine and heroin use causes neurobehavioral and neurophysiological changes, temperament alterations, and behavioral problems.


Alcohol Abuse
Side Effects of Alcohol


Other Effects of Maternal Smoking and Alcohol Use  

Besides causing ADHD, maternal smoking can lead to low birth weight and premature birth, lip and mouth deformities on the baby. It also increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDs) and can damage the baby’s lungs and brain. 

Alcohol, on the other hand, may lead to facial defects, miscarriage, and stillbirths. As a mother, substance use can lead to addiction and lower your ability to take care of yourself and the baby. It may also deteriorate your mental health and result in stress and related conditions.

Tips for Stopping Alcohol Use and Smoking during Pregnancy

Given the adverse effects of tobacco and alcohol, it is advisable to quit harmful habits like smoking and substance use during pregnancy to minimize complications. Doing so also reduces the chances of the baby developing ADHD and other behavioral problems growing up. 

Although quitting can be a challenge, it is possible. The first step to stopping substance use during pregnancy is seeking professional help. Doing so gives you access to professional advice such as detoxing without harming your health or your baby. You also get treatment options and programs to keep you away from smoking or substance use.

Other ways that can help you quit include joining support groups and speaking to your loved ones.  Note that if you suffer from drug dependency, quitting on your own can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms that may jeopardize your safety and that of your unborn baby.

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2. Lead and Chemical Exposure (Toxicity)

Lead is a highly toxic metal responsible for mental illnesses and has been associated with ADHD as it impairs brain development in children. It is present in older buildings and pipes, especially in homes built before 1978. Peeling paint and ceilings, as well as soil, may contain lead that infiltrates water and air.

Exposure to lead in children causes brain development difficulties, lower IQ points, and behavioral problems like ADHD. Children also develop aggressiveness and inattentiveness if they are exposed to lead metal while young. While there is an acceptable measurement of lead levels in the blood, no lead amount is safe for kids as the effects are permanent. 

Besides lead, other chemicals that can cause ADHD to include:

  • Pesticides, especially DDT and Chlorpyrifos
  • Methyl-Mercury, coming from maternal consumption of fish with high mercury content.
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCBs) found in food products like fish and can pass through breast milk.
  • Arsenic present in wood preservatives, drugs, and body products.
  • Tetrachloroethylene solvent present in cleaning agents.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) chemicals present in fire retardants, furniture, and fabrics.
  • Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) that prevent food from sticking to surfaces such as Teflon.

The above chemicals can cause ADHD as they impair neurodevelopment in children.


Lead Poisoning Symptoms
Common Lead Poisoning Symptoms in Adults


How to Protect Your Child from Lead Exposure?

Here are some of the ways you can protect your child from lead exposure and toxic chemicals.

  • Opt for organic foods and a healthy diet.
  • Clean toys and hands to get rid of contaminated soil or dust. Doing so prevents the transfer of lead toxins from hand to mouth.
  • For old plumbing, avoid using hot tap water for cooking. Also, run cold water for at least one minute before using it.
  • Avoid using products with toxic chemicals such as toothpaste and cleaning agents.
  • Keep your home in good condition if it has lead-based paint to avoid particles containing lead in your home.

The above measures can help protect you and your child from lead poisoning and minimize the risk of ADHD.


3. Low Birth Weight

Low birth weight refers to when a child is less than 5.5 pounds during birth and is primarily results from premature birth. Premature birth can be due to drug use, poor nutrition, infections, genetics, and medical conditions. Low birth weight may also result from the restriction of intrauterine growth caused by placenta problems, defects, and maternal health issues. 

According to studies, children born with low birth weight or prematurely face a high risk of developing ADHD. The lower the birth weight, the more severe the symptoms of ADHD. The ADHD symptoms manifest through primary neuropsychological functions that happen early, like motor coordination and not higher-order functions like memory and language, which develop much later. 


Low Birth Weight
Causes of Low Birth Weight


Also, low birth weight is associated with ADHD because some of the causes of low birth weight affect brain development, such as tobacco smoke, alcohol, and poor nutrition. Note that children born preterm or with low birth weight are three times more likely to suffer from ADHD, linking neuropsychological deficiencies to ADHD.

How to Prevent Low Birth Weight?

The best way to deal with low birth weight is to be proactive with your wellbeing from very early in the pregnancy. Use the following tips to help you prevent low birth weight:

  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Manage any preexisting conditions and treat infections like UTI as soon as possible.
  • Make lifestyle adjustments by cutting out harmful habits like smoking, alcohol, and substance use.
  • Begin prenatal care early to help catch any issues that may affect your pregnancy and lead to premature birth and low birth weight.

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Final Thoughts

While you may not be born with ADHD, you can develop ADHD because of your genes.  Maternal state during pregnancy and environmental factors also contribute to the development of ADHD during childhood. Fortunately, you can manage ADHD with treatment, therapy, as well as a change in lifestyle and diet.  

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