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Your Environment. Your Health.

Understanding the Effects of Environmental Exposures on Child Health

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"Understanding the effects of environmental exposures in early life, during pregnancy, and throughout childhood has been a priority at the NIEHS for over three decades. With Recovery Act funds, we were able to enhance our investments in ways that will bring new knowledge about children’s health conditions such as asthma, childhood cancer and developmental disorders to the public more quickly."
— Gwen W. Collman, Ph.D., Acting Director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research

What does child environmental health include?

Children’s health includes the study of possible environmental causes of children’s illnesses and disorders, as well as the prevention and treatment of environmentally mediated diseases in children and infants. In addition to funding autism research, NIEHS also invested a significant portion of Recovery Act funds in the following areas of children’s health research:

Asthma: Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the lung, causing symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and trouble breathing. Once considered a minor ailment affecting only a small portion of the population, asthma is now the most common chronic disorder of childhood and affects an estimated 6.2 million children under the age of 18.

Child participating in a neurodevelopmental assessment.
Child participating in a neurodevelopmental assessment.
(Photo courtesy of Kim Harley, Ph.D.)

Neurodevelopmental Disorders: Research supported by NIEHS has shown the interaction between genetic susceptibility and environmental exposures, potentially early in life, is linked to neurodevelopmental disorders. Cognitive and behavioral development disorders, including autism, attention deficit disorder, and learning movement disorders, are impacted by the interplay between genes and the environment. However, scientists still lack a clear understanding of the nature of such interactions, timing and level of exposures, and disease causation.

Leukemia: Leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, refers to cancer of the blood or bone marrow. According to the National Children's Leukemia Foundation  , Leukemia affects close to 3,000 children annually and accounts for 33% of all cancers in children under 15.

Cardiovascular Disease: Many forms of chronic cardiovascular disease (CVD) are initiated in childhood and/or young adulthood. Children are especially susceptible to risk factors associated with the development of cardiovascular disease in adulthood, including second-hand tobacco smoke, air pollution, lead, and childhood overweight and obesity (affecting about one-third of the pediatric population).

Why is supporting child environmental health research so important?

Children are highly vulnerable to the negative health consequences associated with many environmental exposures. Children receive proportionately larger doses of environmental toxicants than adults, and the fact that their organs and tissues are rapidly developing makes them particularly susceptible. Research in children’s health looks at the effects of air pollution on respiratory diseases such as allergies and asthma, the impact of lead, mercury, and other environmental contaminants on cognitive development and behavior, and the influence of prenatal and early life exposures on growth and development.

How is the Recovery Act (ARRA) advancing child environmental health research?

To address this increasing trend in childhood asthma and developmental disorders, NIEHS is supporting numerous projects to better understand the environmental factors contributing to these conditions. NIEHS is also using ARRA dollars to support research to understand the link between childhood environmental exposures, leukemia risk, and cardiovascular disease to better understand how to reduce the burden of these diseases.

Recovery Act Spotlight

Researchers investigating the possible links between environmental exposures and childhood diseases

ResearcherResearch Description
Edward Avol
University of Southern California
Air pollution and artery wall thickening in elementary-school children
Studying whether early life exposure to outdoor air pollutants promotes artery deposits that lead to carotid artery thickening in 10-12 year olds.
John Anthony Bauer, Ph.D.
Nationwide Children’s Hospital
Impact of tobacco smoke on cardiovascular disease in children
Studying the relationship and mechanisms of environmental tobacco smoke and obesity in cardiovascular disease in children to better understand the implications for child and adult health.
Brooks B. Gump, Ph.D.
State University of New York at Oswego, NY
Relationship of lead to blood pressure in children
Studying whether blood lead causes resistance in blood vessels that leads to increasing blood pressure and contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease.
David C. Bellinger
Children’s Hospital, Boston
Metal exposure and children’s preschool neurodevelopment
Continuing an epidemiology study that is assessing the lifetime combined effects of lead, manganese, arsenic and selenium on neurodevelopment in children 5 1/2 years of age.
Kimberly Yolton
Children’s Hospital Medication Center Cincinnati, Ohio
Neurobehavioral effects of insecticide exposure in pregnancy and early childhood
Studying whether pre- and postnatal effects of exposure to prevalent insecticides impact neurobehavioral outcomes in children.
Grace Lemasters
University of Cincinnati
Diesel, allergens and gene interaction and child allergic disease
Studying the associations between independent and/or combined contributions of diesel exhaust particles, airborne allergens, genetics, and other factors and allergic disease in children ages 1-4.
Patrick N. Breysse
Johns Hopkins University
Impact of indoor air pollution on incidence of asthma in children
Studying whether indoor air pollution results in airway inflammation and increases incidence of asthma in children.
Melinda Sue Butsch-Kovacic
Children’s Hospital Medication Center Cincinnati, Ohio
Impact of air pollution on asthma and allergic disease
Measuring systemic changes due to high levels of diesel exhaust, which may lead to improved asthma and allergic disease therapies and prevention in children.

What else is NIEHS doing in children’s health research?

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