ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts more than 6.6% of children across the globe, typically appearing in early childhood. Although genetics is a known contributor to its occurrence, environmental factors, such as exposure to chemicals that interfere with the endocrine system, may also play a role. A newly published research article in the Science of the Total Environment Journal delves into the correlation between symptoms of ADHD and exposure to polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
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Throughout our lives, humans are constantly exposed to a wide array of chemicals, starting from the embryonic stage and continuing on through adulthood. These molecules come from various sources, such as convenient household items, machines, and foods, and their impact on neurodevelopment and tumorigenesis remains largely unknown.
What are PFAS?
One group of chemicals that has gained attention in recent years is PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These persistent organic pollutants are characterized by a fluorinated carbon chain, which gives them their unique ability to repel dirt, water, and oil. Teflon, a common material used for nonstick cookware, carpets, food packaging, and firefighting foams, is one well-known example of a PFAS chemical. However, these compounds tend to break down slowly over time and accumulate in the food chain, resulting in a half-life of 2-5 years within the human body.
Neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD affect both children and adults, and their primary symptoms include difficulty paying attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Scientists have hypothesized that environmental factors during key stages of early neurodevelopment can lead to ADHD, due to epigenetic modifications that permanently alter disease susceptibility. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are known to mediate epigenetic changes in children during their first three years of life, which can have long-lasting effects on their health.
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In a groundbreaking study, scientists delved into the effects of PFAS on the neurodevelopment of children. The research involved measuring serum levels of PFAS in more than 500 children at two and four years of age, using data from the Environment and Development of Children (EDC) study. The scientists also evaluated ADHD traits in the same cohort at eight years of age using the ADHD Rating Scale IV (ARS).
The results of the study were astonishing. While six PFAS were found to be present in over 90% of the children at both two and four years, the mean concentrations dropped at the later time point. PFPeA and PFTrDA were the only two found more frequently at four years than at two years.
Interestingly, all the PFAS were correlated at both time points. After accounting for potential confounding factors, the scientists discovered that all six PFAS measured in the study showed inverted U-shaped associations with ARS scores. Surprisingly, the highest ARS scores were seen in children falling into the second or third quartiles of exposure to PFAS, compared to those in the first quartile. The effect was more pronounced in girls, but this varied with the PFAS measured.
The researchers uncovered an alarming association between early childhood exposure to PFAS and the development of ADHD symptoms later in life. The study revealed that even low-level exposure to PFAS could increase the risk of developing ADHD symptoms, especially for girls. These findings emphasize the urgency for further research to understand the potential health effects of PFAS, especially during early development.
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