Children’s Environmental Health Centers
EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences support a network of research centers to improve children’s health and prevent disease.
The October 4, 2010 cover story for TIME magazine features the latest science in a field of study known as fetal origins, an emerging body of inquiry into the links between a person’s health and the conditions they were exposed to before birth, as a developing embryo.
In the article, entitled How the First Nine Months Shape the Rest of Your Life, science journalist Annie Murphy Paul highlights case studies that illustrate some of the evidence that scientists have uncovered suggesting that a women’s nutritional intake, health, and environment can have profound effects on her eventual offspring far down the road, years, perhaps even decades, later.
To illustrate how exposure to environmental contaminants play a role in fetal origins, Paul turned to the innovative work carried out at one of the nation’s Centers for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research (“Children’s Centers”).
Priority Research: Protecting the Most Vulnerable
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), established the Children’s Centers in 1998 as part of an ambitious research grant program to enlist and support leading health scientists to tackle questions about children and the environment.
Over the last 12 years, EPA and NIEHS have awarded more than $150 million to support the Children’s Centers Program. The centers foster a collaborative network of leading scientists, pediatricians, epidemiologists, and community advocates, all seeking to improve the health and environments of children.
The Centers’ collective efforts are aimed at learning how environmental exposures to pregnant women and young children are linked to health outcomes, including many of today’s most pressing concerns such as asthma, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), diabetes, and obesity. In addition, Center researchers have been working to better understand the basic mechanisms of exposure to pesticides and other environmental chemicals and the potential toxicity of those chemicals to children’s health.
The Centers engage a diverse, multidisciplinary set of researchers working with populations of mothers and children in both urban and rural areas across the United States. Several Centers have focused research and outreach efforts within populations of young people most at risk, such as those children whose parents are agricultural workers or from low-income families. Each Center fosters community participation in one or more studies.
The Children’s Centers research program explicitly encourages scientists to share their findings as early as possible, in ways that make important information accessible, understandable, and useful to doctors, nurses, and public health officials. Center researchers have published a number of important, high-profile findings on many research subjects, including asthma, exposures to household and agricultural pesticides, epidemiology, air pollution, prenatal exposure to environmental tobacco smoke, and the identification of environmental triggers.
Research outcomes from the Centers have laid the scientific foundation for a whole new way of thinking about children and the environment. Important findings that are making a difference in children’s lives today include:
- People metabolize pesticides differently based on their genotype; some faster, others slower. This finding is of particular concern during pregnancy, as many babies do not develop the ability to metabolize some pesticides during the first two years of life, putting them at greater risks of health effects.
- Children living close to major roadways in Southern California have a higher risk of asthma, and prenatal exposure to PAHs (common components of vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke and factory emissions) can lower a child’s score on IQ tests and in one study were found to be related to cognitive delay at age three.
- EPA’s ban on two household pesticides (diazinon and chlorpyrifos) resulted in a rapid decrease in exposures in New York City. Children born after the ban were also healthier.
- Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can be effectively implemented in urban areas to reduce both exposure to pesticides and allergen triggers.
- Community partners play a critical role in informing, implementing, and translating children’s environmental health research.
The new Children’s Centers and their research projects, as well as ongoing projects and others, promise to continue to advance the scientific understanding of children and the environment as dramatically as the results from the work over the past ten years.
Protecting Children’s Health for a Lifetime: Environmental Health Research Meets Clinical Practice and Public Policy Public Meeting to be held October 19 and 20 in