Up to 3% of Toronto-area children could have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: study

The study's lead researcher says there is no safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant. Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

A new study has found rates of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder among school children in the Greater Toronto Area are at least double previous rough estimates for Canada — suggesting that the condition may be more widespread than previously thought.

The findings, from researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, are based on screenings of 2,555 seven- to nine-year-old children from 40 schools in the Greater Toronto Area.

The team behind the assessments has estimated the prevalence of FASD at 1.9 per cent to 2.9 per cent.

READ MORE: Reality check: Is light drinking during pregnancy safe?

None of the 21 cases identified had previously been diagnosed, according to lead researcher Dr. Svetlana (Lana) Popova, a senior scientist at CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research.

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“That means we are missing these kids,” she told the Tasha Kheiriddin show on 640 Toronto on Tuesday.

FASD, which includes fetal alcohol syndrome and milder forms, is an umbrella term for conditions caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. FASD can have a broad range of lifelong impacts on the brain and the body.

“A major target of alcohol is obviously [the] brain, that’s why people with FASD have difficulties with learning, attention, memory, problem-solving, language and communication and many other things, but alcohol can also affect many other organs and systems of the fetus,” Popova said.

Those with FASD have been shown to be at risk for substance abuse, mental-health issues and many other difficulties as adults.

LISTEN: Dr. Svetlana (Lana) Popova, senior scientist at CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research

The CAMH study is the first time FASD has been examined through population-based research in Canada, according to the authors.

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The results peg the number of those affected far ahead of previous estimates. Health Canada’s website states that an estimated 3,000 babies are born with FASD every year, a figure that puts the rate below 1 per cent.

“For a long time, we believed that prevalence of FASD in Canada is only 1 per cent, but indeed, it was not properly estimated because this estimate was just extrapolated from very old American studies,” Popova said.

READ MORE: Should women drink alcohol when they’re breastfeeding?

While the study found that mothers of children with FASD were more likely to have lower education, the incidence of the condition wasn’t tied to any other factors.

“Our study found that FASD is not restricted to any particular group of people, but rather occurs throughout society regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of age or ethnicity,” Popova said.

Popova said it’s likely the results of this study reflect how widespread FASD is in similar large cities in Canada. However, much higher rates are found in northern communities and among children in care and those in jail or mental-health institutions, she said.

READ MORE: ‘Their life is tough’: mom of 2 kids with FASD shares their struggles

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The research was conducted as part of a global study in partnership with the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Popova said there is no safe amount — or type — of alcohol to consume during pregnancy, or while trying to get pregnant.

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