Four Everyday Chemicals that Cause ADHD

September 6, 2010 by Dr.Yannick Pauli

For some time now, we’ve been aware that environmental chemicals are one of the silent causes of ADHD. Many of these chemicals are neurotoxins – substances which act directly upon neurons and interfere with their functions – that linger in the environment for years. Symptoms of neurotoxin exposure include lack of concentration, personality changes, depression, and hyperactive behavior. In adults, exposure to these poisons can cause a range of health problems, from infertility to cancer. Children and babies, however, are uniquely affected by these chemicals due to their developing nervous systems and biological immaturity; they are unable to detoxify as efficiently as adults, and the rapid development of their brain processes makes the neurons more vulnerable to the effects of chemicals.  In other words, children are helpless against these toxins and are more likely to suffer from ADHD, autism, and other psychological disorders with prolonged exposure.

What most people don’t realize is that you don’t have to live near a polluted area to be exposed to these chemicals; neurotoxins lurk in the products you use daily and the food you eat.  Current research reveals four everyday chemicals linked to childhood ADHD. Find out what they are and what you can do to avoid them.


Organophosphates are a type of pesticide that kills insects by disrupting their brains and nervous systems.  Unfortunately, these chemicals product a toxic effect on the nervous systems of humans and animals by inhibiting a key enzyme called cholinesterase.  Even at low doses, children are vulnerable to the effects of organophosphates, as indicated by two studies.

The scientific journal Pediatrics recently discovered that there is a significant relationship between pesticide exposure and ADHD symptoms.  The researchers looked at the pesticide levels in urine samples of 1,139 children.  After interviews with the parents or caretaker, they determined that one in 10 children met the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis. After accounting for various factors, researchers determined that the likelihood of having ADHD increased with the pesticide levels in urine.  It was likely that they were exposed to these chemicals from eating unwashed fruit and vegetables.

Did you know that babies in the womb aren’t safe from the effects of organophosphates either? A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives tested pregnant women for organophosphate levels in their urine, and observed their children as they grew. The authors observed that women with higher amounts of pesticides while pregnant had children who were more likely to have ADHD symptoms by the time they were five years old.

Avoid pesticide exposure by washing all fruits and vegetables before eating. Better yet, buy organic produce when possible.  

Flame retardant

The study mentioned above also discovered that a common pesticide ingredient called polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB),which was formerly used as a flame retardant, was also present in the urine of the women with ADHD children. Even though PCBs have been banned by the US government, it continues to persist in the soul and water.  A newer version of the chemical called polybrominated biphenyl is also used as a flame-retardant on carpets; experts believe they may have the same neurotoxic effect.


Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PCFs) are highly-stable compounds found in many everyday products like fire-fighting foams and food packaging. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and compared blood samples taken from 571 children, 48 of which were diagnosed with ADHD.  Based on the data, researchers concluded that children with higher PFC levels had increased odds of having ADHD.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to avoid PCFs in today’s world, but you can do a few things to minimize your child’s exposure to these chemicals.

  • Avoid buying greasy fast food products like pizza or microwave popcorn.  They are usually packaged in coated cardboard, which have been treated with PCFs.
  • Use stainless steel pans instead of non-stick pans; the latter is treated with PCFs. If you must use non-stick pans, keep the temperature well below 450º F to prevent the chemical from leaching.
  • Don’t opt for the stain-resistance treatment when you buy furniture.  


Modern life wouldn’t be as convenient without plastic, but many plastic products (toys, food containers, cleaning materials) contain a chemical called phthalates. Research has linked phthalate exposure to a number of health problems, including birth defects, reproductive problems, and asthma, and now a Korean study discovered that phthalate exposure may be linked to ADHD.  They measured urine phthalate levels and evaluated children for ADHD using tests that measure impulsivity and attention. There was a significant association between ADHD symptoms and phthalate levels, which means ADHD symptoms or test scores got worse as phthalate levels increased.

The good news is that you don’t have to get rid of all your plastic products to avoid phthalates; all you need to do is avoid products and ingredients that do contain this chemical.

  • Avoid products with DBP, DEP, DEHP, BzBP, and DMP – the chemical name of phthalates in personal care products like shampoo, perfume, hair gel, deodorant, or lotion.
  • Buy fragrance-free products. “Fragrance” denotes more than just a pleasant smell; it’s a cocktail of compounds that may possibly contain phthalates and other harmful substances.
  • Choose plastic with the recycling codes 1,2, or 5; they are less likely to contain phthalates.

Photo credit: 1, 2, 3, 4