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Scare Mongering and ADHD

By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

MedHelp: Scare Mongering and ADHDHey, what’s the best way to link Halloween and an increasingly common childhood concern, such as attention deficit disorder? How about some scare-mongering in the form of an ostensibly educational article?

I received an email newsletter from the website, MedHelp.org, that encouraged me to learn about “8 ADHD Culprits Lurking in Your Home: Could your home be a haven for toxins that can cause ADHD?” Hmmm, I thought, I didn’t know that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was caused by toxins in my home! I like to think I keep up with the research literature, so this was a potentially eye-opening article.

Then I clicked through and found one of those infuriating “photo galleries” that show a stock photo next to each explanation of the toxin. These photo galleries are meant to do only one thing — generate clicks on the website. The article could just as easily be all on one page (and most photo galleries offer that option — but not this one).

Frustrated, I clicked through only to find the kind of shallow article that passes for health journalism nowadays. There are really only 4, possibly 5, toxins in the article — 3 are repeated in order to get to the magical number 8. The three big ones are: lead (in water pipes and paint; both of which have been banned for some time), phthalates, and organophosphate pesticides.

So just for fun, I decided to examine each claim and the research backing for it.

8 Comments to
Scare Mongering and ADHD

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  1. My toddler had unusually high levels of lead in his blood in spite of not having access to paint chips. If there is lead in the paint in your house it is very easy for it to rub off and become a fine, invisible dust that can only be contained through continuous damp sponging and mopping.

    If your child’s level becomes elevated you have to deal with developmental evaluations, home evaluations, frequent blood tests (major ouch) and copious iron supplementation (massive ick).

    We had to have our doors removed and stripped and repaint all of the trim and frames with a special lead-blocking paint.

  2. Although the article appeared to me in my MedHelp newsletter today — a few days before Halloween — I should note that the article was actually published in June 2010.

  3. Also: azodicarbonamide (sp?) is in most breads and baked goods on the shelves. It is banned in Europe because it can cause asthma. I dunno about ADHD, though.

    Anecdotaly, we have banned in our household every thing that is “banned in Europe” (anywhere in Europe) and we are all healthier and much better-behaved/less cranky. “We can’t buy that, Mom, it’s ‘banned in Europe.'”

    Tartrazine (yellow!) is also a bad one but basically I won’t buy anything with artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives (or high-fructose corn syrup).

    Also: it’s possible to reduce one’s pesticide exposure and keep one’s produce expenditure down by following these guidelines for what is best to buy organic and what’s ok to buy conventional: http://www.foodnews.org/fulllist.php

  4. Yes, indeed, lead is a hazard to children. It always has been, and it’s a warning you hear constantly repeated in the media and whenever you’re interested in buying a home. In fact, there’s usually a waiver you must sign when you purchase your mortgage.

    Out of all the claims the article made, the two based upon lead exposure seem to have the largest research evidence base. But we have already known for a few decades now that you should limit your child’s lead exposure, so this should not come as actionable news for most parents.

  5. The ADHD / phthalate link is not the only concern; there is also the potential link with reproductive problems. This was not made up by Congress, as you claim; phthalates have been banned in children’s toys in the EU since 1999, long before the ADHD link was ever suggested. I agree with the EU’s policy of airing on the side of caution when it comes to potentially harmful substances and children: why take that risk? And what good could it possibly do children to chew on toys that are oozing chemicals into their mouths? (And yes, cheap PVC does sometimes literally “ooze” an oily substance, which from all I’ve read and heard, contains phthalates.)

    The same thing goes for pesticide exposure – how could eating pesticides possibly be good for anyone? And it’s not just ADHD that’s at question here – it’s increased risk of certain cancers and various other problems.

    I’m not really sure why you’re so keen to label caution when it comes to exposing children to chemicals as “fear mongering.” Of course this newsletter was all about advertising revenue – but that doesn’t change the fact that pretty much all of the items mentioned in this article should be avoided for a number of health reasons, not just because of perceived risk of ADHD.

  6. Perhaps that’s a good point to underline — virtually nothing mentioned in this article is unique to protect against “getting” ADHD. Some of these things — like smoking and lead exposure — have — as I’ve already said — been linked for decades to childhood health concerns. This should be news to no one.

    It’s “scare mongering” because it suggests that these things really are “lurking” in most people’s homes and can cause ADHD. There’s just very little research to show a causal relationship with any of this stuff and ADHD — and that’s what makes it scare mongering. Not the fact that some of these things actually are correlated with ADHD-like symptoms.

  7. It’s sad that article writers rely on things like fear and sensationalism to get readers and clicks, but such is life, unfortunately.

    The really unfortunate part is that most people won’t be like you and research the claims made by the article and instead will simply be scared out of their minds to make radical changes in their lives that may or may not ACTUALLY have anything to do with preventing ADHD. Like my husband’s ex who became a vegetarian so she wouldn’t get Mad Cow disease…

  8. What many people don’t know is that chloramine, which is being used as a disinfectant in more and water water systems around the U.S., can leach lead from lead pipes and plumbing fixtures. (See the BIG problem in Washington D.C.) Chloramine also can cause respiratory, digestive, and/or skin problems. Please see http://www.chloramine.org for more information.

  9. What the scare article fails to mention is that ADD or ADHD is one of the most over-diagnosed ailments. It is what I would call a fad diagnosis. Is it reasonable that 10 per cent of all 10-year-old boys have this ailment? Well those are the stats. Bunk!!!

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