Two per cent of GTA students likely have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, new CAMH study shows

Two per cent of GTA students likely have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, new CAMH study shows

TORONTO, April 10, 2018 – Two to three per cent of children in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), according to the first population-based study of its kind in Canada, conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). This is at least twice as high as the previous crude estimate of one per cent in the general population of Canada.

“FASD is a leading cause of developmental delays in children in Canada, who, in many cases, require lifelong assistance for their health, education and social service needs,” says Dr. Svetlana (Lana) Popova, Senior Scientist at CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, the study’s principal investigator. “This study clearly shows the scope of the problem, the need for greater awareness to prevent alcohol use during pregnancy, and the need for the supports required by people with FASD and their families.”

The current research is part of a global study on FASD prevalence, guided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). It included 2,555 children aged seven to nine years from 40 schools in five school boards in the GTA, representing four out of the five regional municipalities.

FASD is caused when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol. The effects of FASD may include physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities, which can range from mild to severe. Accurately estimating how frequently FASD occurs is an important first step to creating effective prevention and support programs. 

Dr. Lana Popova measure the facial features of a young boy to look for physical signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder​

To identify cases of FASD across a large population, researchers used an approach called active case ascertainment – a surveillance strategy in which cases are actively sought for examination and diagnosis – along with collecting information on prenatal alcohol exposure. This methodology was developed under the guidance of internationally recognized experts from the WHO and NIAAA.

During the first phase of the study, students were pre-screened to assess their physical development, behaviour and learning problems, and facial features characteristic of FASD. During the second phase, students, who met one or more predetermined criteria, underwent a neurodevelopmental assessment, along with typically developing children selected randomly as a control group. Eligible mothers were then invited for interviews.

Based on these assessments, a multidisciplinary team of Canada’s leading experts in FASD diagnosis held case-by-case consultations. The prevalence of FASD was estimated to be between 1.8 and 2.9 per cent.

“These estimates likely reflect the prevalence of FASD in similar large metropolitan areas in Canada,” says Dr. Popova. “The estimates are not applicable to populations in remote northern communities, children in care, or people in prison or psychiatric care facilities, which have shown much higher rates of FASD.”

“The negative effects of alcohol consumption on the fetus can occur during any stage of pregnancy, but often they occur before the mother knew she was pregnant,” says Dr. Popova.

This is why it is recommended that the safest course of action is to not drink alcohol at any time during pregnancy or when planning to become pregnant.


The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and a world leading research centre in this field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental illness and addiction. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. For more information, please visit or follow @CAMHnews and @CAMHResearch on Twitter.

​Media Contact:

Sean O’Malley
Media Relations, CAMH
416-535-8501 ext. 36663



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