Chemicals in the Environment: A Cause of ADHD and Autism?

Research is finding that chemicals in the environment may be a cause of ADHD and Autism. Thankfully, research has also found that certain supplemental nutrients can aid in protecting the body and brain from chemical exposures.

As I try to help as many people as possible to overcome hurdles that bar the way to optimal cognitive function, I encounter many parents who are frustrated by two increasingly common childhood obstacles: autism spectrum disorders and ADHD. Many of these parents of are tortured by one big question: What happened with my child that didn’t happen with other children? Why is my child affected and struggling when so many others are not? Was it something I did…or didn’t do?

Current research is finding that environmental toxins may play a substantial role in these brain disorders. More specifically: some children seem genetically less able to handle the toxic burden that currently inhabits the bodies of every creature that walks, swims, flies, floats, or otherwise resides upon this verdant globe. The brains and bodies of developing children may be affected to different extents by industrial toxins like PCBs, mercury, arsenic, toluene, lead, and dioxins – chemicals that are ubiquitous, that are known to be neurotoxic (toxic to the nervous system), and that really can’t be avoided in the modern world. Progress is being made, but most industrial toxins persist and bioaccumulate (that is, the higher you are on the food chain, the more concentrated these toxins are in your body) for centuries after they’re released into the environment.

Researchers from Harvard and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York have published a review detailing the possible harm that industrial chemicals may be doing to the brains of developing children. They identified 202 chemicals that have been researched adequately to know that they can harm the nervous system, and that plausibly could contribute to the current epidemic of autism, ADHD, and other brain disorders most commonly diagnosed in childhood – but far too inadequately to know whether they are safe for human use and exposure. Aside from effects of individual chemicals, there’s the chilling fact that they probably interact inside the body in ways that amplify their toxicity.

Regulation of toxic industrial chemicals is another fox watching the henhouse scenario. U.S. industry is expected to regulate its own use of chemicals, and these chemicals are only banned when there is overwhelming scientific evidence that they are harmful. That evidence is highly unlikely to come from industry studies. This explains why lead, which is a known developmental neurotoxin, was not phased out completely until two decades after its neurotoxicity was known to the scientific community. How many other chemicals are out there that are just as dangerous? More dangerous? It’s hard to say. Without changes in regulation, we may never know.

If you are not familiar with my book Brighter Mind, this may seem like a less than hopeful point. However: science has shown us that we can, with the right nutritional program, significantly reduce toxic accumulations by supporting the brain and body’s natural detoxification mechanisms. Here’s what I had to say in my book about one such mechanism, an antioxidant called glutathione:

The brain uses an elaborate system of antioxidants to neutralize toxins like free radicals, and the antioxidant glutathione is one of the most important components of the detoxification systems of both liver and brain. Hence, ensuring that the ingredients that produce and give the body glutathione is one of the most effective ways to enhance liver and brain detoxification.

Supplemental nutrients, then, can aid in detox of chemicals and free radicals by enhancing glutathione. Such nutrients include manganese, copper, zinc, and selenium; vitamin E; vitamin C; R+Lipoic Acid (also called DHLA); and N acetyl cysteine. One of my goals in writing Brighter Mind was to explore, in detail, the need for these (and other) nutrients, the science supporting their use, and safe, effective dosages you can use to protect your body and brain from chemical exposures.

What else can be done? Here’s my take: the more we know about the specific mechanisms through which toxic chemicals alter nervous system function and development, the better able we will be to take advantage of the plasticity of the nervous system in overcoming those ill effects. We may be able to, essentially, “re wire” the brain’s circuitry with targeted therapies and mental exercises, particularly if we start when the child is very young. This is a fascinating and quite young field of study. Perhaps genetic testing will lead us to a better understanding of which children are at risk, and may help us to promote better function of their nervous systems as they grow.

Reference: Grandjean P, Landrigan PJ, “Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals,” Lancet, November 8,2006:368.

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