The National Children’s Study
EPA researchers help lead the largest federal study ever undertaken to examine environmental influences on the health and development of children.
What could data collected from more than 100,000 children from across the country, from before their birth through their 21st birthdays, tell us about how environmental influences might affect the health and development of the nation’s children? A consortium of federal partners—including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences—is working to answer just that question.
The National Children’s Study (NCS) is the largest long-term study of environmental and genetic influences on children’s health ever conducted in the United States. During the study, researchers will follow 100,000 children from before birth through their 21st birthdays to learn how family health history and the environments in which children live, learn, and play affect their health and development.
The overall goal is to build a scientific foundation that will form the basis of child health guidance, interventions, and policy for generations to come.
“The study will look at how our children’s environments affect their health, their growth, and their development. Researchers will look at what children are exposed to in their environments as early as possible, even before they are born,” says Kevin Teichman, Ph.D., the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science at EPA and the Agency’s representative on the NCS Advisory Committee.
“Because the study is so large and is looking at so many different types of environments, we will be able to look at why some people get sick and others do not, even when they live in the same locations and do many of the same things,” Teichman explains.
Researchers will gather the information needed to better understand how children’s genes and environments interact to affect their health and development. The study will also examine how events and exposures early in life can lead to health problems, such as asthma, later on. Study analysis will consider the differences that exist between various groups of people across the country in terms of their health care access, disease occurrence, and other issues, so that these differences or disparities can be addressed.
Participating mothers will provide information through periodic appointments or interviews with study staff before and during pregnancy and as her child grows. Children will participate as they become able, and fathers will have the opportunity to provide information as well. Researchers will also collect environmental samples such as air, waters, and dust in the participants’ homes. Mothers and children will also provide biological samples such as urine, blood, and breast milk, which will be tested for the presence of certain environmental chemicals.
Data from the study are expected to inform research into a host of different conditions, including birth defects and pregnancy-related problems, injuries, asthma, obesity, diabetes, and behavior, learning, and mental health disorders.
Informing the Science: EPA’s Role
As the nation’s leading agency for environmental and human health research and policy, EPA has served a critical role in the design and execution of the NCS. That work began with helping to guide the design of the study and continues with the Agency’s active participating on the NCS Interagency Coordinating Committee and various NCS work groups.
“By getting involved early in the process, EPA scientists were able to help our partners in study design develop an overall research framework that would lead to important hypotheses and define priority outcomes,” says EPA research scientist James Quackenboss, an expert on exposure studies and an NCS Interagency Coordinating Committee member.
Quackenboss explained how he and his colleagues have worked with EPA’s program offices and regions to help bridge the gap between what NCS researchers would learn and the kinds of information needed by EPA to protect children. “EPA researchers help guide the study to ensure that it is relevant,” he explains.
EPA scientists also contribute their expertise in exposure science and environmental monitoring and assessment. For example, the Agency has funded and led a number of method development projects and workshops to inform the design and execution of the study.
Agency personnel helped to plan community-based elements critical to the study, such as the recruitment and retention of study participants to ensure that results will be relevant to children living anywhere in the country.
Although the study is an ongoing effort that will continue for many years, findings and databases will be released as soon as possible in order to make the potential benefits known to the public. Many peer-reviewed scientific papers have already been published.
Ultimately, findings from the Study will help to ensure a brighter and healthier future for America’s children.