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Protecting Children's Health for a Lifetime

EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences support a network of research centers working to improve children's health and prevent disease.


Young girl smiling into camera

Did you know that organic brown rice syrup may be a source of arsenic exposure? That children living near busy roads may be at higher risk for asthma? And that obese mothers may be 67% more likely to have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as compared to normal-weight mothers who do not have diabetes or hypertension?

The above facts are just three of the many findings from a children’s environmental health research program supported by EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Exit EPA Disclaimer. For more than 14 years, EPA and NIEHS have partnered to invest more than $150 million to expand knowledge about children’s environmental health through the EPA/NIEHS Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Program (Children’s Centers).

Since the program began, more than 20 multidisciplinary Children’s Health Research Centers have been funded, engaging some of the nation’s leading children’s environmental health researchers.

Through the collaborative network, research scientists, pediatricians, epidemiologists, and local community representatives seek ways to reduce children’s health risks, protect them from environmental threats, and promote their health and well-being in the communities where they live, learn, and play.

“The Children’s Centers are really cross-cutting by design in that they address all kinds of contaminants, chemicals, air pollution, toxic substances, and water. They look at children’s health from a community perspective so they consider urban and rural environments and how they have different influences on health. In that sense, they are serving a broad and important function,” said Sally Perreault Darney, PhD, the coordinator of EPA’s children’s environmental health research.

Center researchers are investigating how environmental, genetic, and epigenetic components, as well as how social and cultural factors, may be linked to many of today’s most pressing children’s health concerns, including diseases such as asthma, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), neurodevelopmental deficits, childhood leukemia, diabetes, and obesity.

Young boy smiling while swinging on a swing set

EPA/NIEHS Children’s Centers researchers have published a host of important findings on diverse research subjects important to protecting children’s health. (See sidebar: Advancing Children’s Environmental Health Science.)

“Children’s Centers researchers have pioneered new ways of thinking about how to understand and address children’s environmental health. Because the program includes mentoring of new investigators, the impacts of the Centers program reach well into the next generation of children’s environmental health researchers,” said Rich Callan, MPH, one of EPA’s project officers for the program.

The Centers also emphasize community engagement and the importance of translating research findings to make them accessible and useful to doctors, nurses, public health officials, and local communities. Many of the Centers include focused research, outreach, and intervention efforts within at-risk populations, such as children whose parents are agricultural workers or from low-income families.

In 2013, EPA and NIEHS expect to fund additional Children’s Centers to build upon the foundation of research on children’s environmental health.

To learn more about EPA’s Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers, including how to sign up for the monthly webinar series presenting the latest research findings, please visit: www.epa.gov/ncer/childrenscenters/.

Long-term Research to Protect Children

Some of the Children’s Environmental Health Centers have been following children before they were born, collecting environmental measurements over several years and across different developmental stages. The work has proved to be a tremendous resource and continues to support ongoing research.

Recent examples include findings by Children’s Centers at Columbia, Mount Sinai, and UC Berkeley/Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH) showing that prenatal exposure to higher levels of organophosphate (OP) pesticides, commonly used on agricultural crops, can lower a child’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and performance on memory and behavioral tests.

The Columbia study also found altered brain structure in children with higher prenatal OP exposures. The structural alterations observed are consistent with those seen in the brain structures of children found to have IQ deficits.

In addition, research from UC Berkeley/CERCH Children’s Center showed that until age nine, children have lower levels of the enzyme paraoxonase (PON) than adults. Because  this enzyme can detoxify OP pesticides, lower levels of the enzyme can put children at greater risk for adverse health effects, such as behavioral and learning disorders, from exposure.

Supporting Healthy and Sustainable Communities

The community-focused findings of a study on pest control by researchers at the Columbia Children’s Center are a prime example of the positive impact that the EPA/NIEHS Children’s Centers have in supporting children’s health. Researchers there demonstrated that integrated pest management (IPM), which incorporates a suite of practices such as sealing indoor cracks and crevices and storing food in sealed containers, can be more effective than traditional control measures that rely primarily on the use of pesticides.

Based on those findings (PDF), (1 pp, 5K) Exit EPA Disclaimer the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the New York City Housing Authority adopted an IPM intervention as part of the standard pest control protocol for public housing in New York City. 

Advancing Children’s Environmental Health Science

“The highly significant work from the Centers is a testimony to the continuing success of the Children’s Centers program in promoting children’s health and the ongoing partnership between EPA and NIEHS that began in 1998,” said Nica Louie, MS, an EPA project officer for the Centers program.

Just a few of the many important research findings that are improving the lives and health of children today include:

  • Children who ate mostly organic fruits and vegetables and drank organic juices had significantly lower levels of pesticide byproducts in their urine than children who ate non-organic produce. (Center for Child Environmental Health Risks Research at the University of Washington. Read the journal article (PDF).) (1 pp, 5K) Exit EPA Disclaimer
  • Children’s Centers researchers conducted the first study to investigate the relationship between exposure to the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) and thyroid function in pregnant women and neonates. Researchers found an association between levels of BPA and lower levels of thyroid hormones in pregnant women and newborn boys. Thyroid hormone during pregnancy and the neonatal period is critical to proper brain development. (Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at University of California, Berkeley. Read the journal article.) Exit EPA Disclaimer
  • Researchers found that children with exposures to two types of phthalates (chemicals found in personal care and plastic products) have elevated risk of asthma-related airway inflammation. (Columbia University's Center for Children’s Environmental Health. Read the journal article.) Exit EPA Disclaimer
  • EPA/NIEHS Children’s Center research has shown that children living in close proximity to major roadways are at higher risk for asthma and are more likely to have reduced lung function compared with children living farther away. (Children’s Environmental Health Center at University of Southern California/UCLA. Read the journal article.) Exit EPA Disclaimer
  • Air monitoring in homes of children living in inner-city Baltimore, Maryland by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center revealed levels of particulate matter (PM) exceeding the EPA annual limit for ambient PM. These levels were associated with increased asthma diagnosis and more frequent respiratory symptoms. The researchers also found that using HEPA air filters helped lower PM levels. (Johns Hopkins University. Read the journal article.) Exit EPA Disclaimer
  • Prenatal exposure to air pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can lower a child’s IQ, and in one study were found to be related to cognitive delay at age three. (The Columbia Children’s Center. Read the journal article.) Exit EPA Disclaimer
  • Center research has shown an association of autism with proximity to a freeway and a larger volume of traffic in California. (UC Davis Center. Read the journal Article.)

For the latest and additional research findings from Children’s Center researchers, visit the “Newsroom” at:www.epa.gov/ncer/childrenscenters/news/

Learn More:

EPA/NIEHS Children’s Centers

News from the EPA/NIEHS Children’s Centers

EPA’s Extramural Research

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