Updated 13 June 2017

Can a common household pesticide cause ADHD?

Exposure to common household pesticides found in insect sprays could be linked to ADHD in kids.

There's evidence - but not proof - of a link between a commonly used household pesticide and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and young teens, according to a new study.

Specifically, researchers found an association between exposure to pyrethroid pesticides and adhd, as well as ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity and impulsivity.

The link between the pesticides and ADHD was stronger in boys than in girls, according to the findings published online in the journal Environmental Health.

However, researchers only found an association between pesticides and ADHD. The study did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

Pyrethroid pesticides considered safer

Pyrethroid pesticides - considered safer than organophosphate pesticides - are the most widely used pesticides for home and public health pest control, and their use in agriculture is increasing, according to the researchers.

"Given the growing use of pyrethroid pesticides and the perception that they may represent a safe alternative, our findings may be of considerable public health importance," study corresponding author Dr. Tanya Froehlich, a developmental paediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said in a hospital news release.

She and her colleagues analysed data from nearly 700 children between the ages of 8 and 15. The children had taken part in the 2000-2001 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The researchers looked at levels of 3-PBA - a chemical indicator of exposure to pyrethroids - in the children's urine.

Boys with detectable levels of 3-PBA in their urine were three times more likely to have ADHD than those without detectable 3-PBA. For every 10-fold increase in 3-PBA levels in boys, there was a 50 percent increased risk for hyperactivity and impulsivity - both symptoms of ADHD.

In girls, levels of 3-PBA were not associated with increased risk of ADHD or symptoms of the disorder.

"Our study assessed pyrethroid exposure using 3-PBA concentrations in a single urine sample," Froehlich said. But because these chemicals don't stay in the body for long, she suggested that future studies need to take multiple measurements over time. Such studies would need to be done before "we can say definitively whether our results have public health ramifications," she said.

Previous studies have found that pyrethroid exposure increases hyperactivity, impulsivity and abnormalities in the dopamine system in male mice, according to the researchers. Dopamine is a brain chemical believed to play a role in many activities, including those that govern ADHD, the researchers said.

Read more:

Kids of obese moms have elevated risk of ADHD

Environmental factors raise ADHD risk


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Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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