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Your Environment. Your Health.

Children's Health

Introduction

young boy at the doctor

Children and infants are especially vulnerable to pollution and other environmental factors that may cause serious health problems. There are several reasons why children are at higher risk:

  • Pound for pound, children eat, drink, and breathe more than adults relative to their size.
  • Children frequently put objects in their mouths, explore more, and play on the floor and ground.
  • Protective bodily systems, such as those that filter pollutants from inhaled air and process chemicals in the body, are not yet fully functional in children.
  • During periods of rapid growth and development in childhood, normal biological processes may be disrupted by environmental chemicals.

Doctors and scientist do not always know what causes a disease or a disorder. Some health conditions are genetic and can be passed from grandparents to parents to children. Some health problems may be caused by injury from things in our environment. Most scientists agree that diseases are probably caused by both, which is called the gene-environment interaction. Since we cannot do much to change our genes, researchers believe that identifying and managing environmental hazards offers the best hope for prevention.

By protecting children, we may also improve their health as adults. According to NIEHS research, when pregnant women improved their nutrition and reduced exposure to environmental chemicals, they were more likely to have healthy babies, and their babies were better able to cope with environment stressors later in life.1

What is NIEHS Doing?

group of children

Children’s environmental health research is a priority for NIEHS funding and research-support activities. NIEHS has invested more than $1 billion in the past 10 years, including $100 million awarded in grants to researchers each year. NIEHS’ research focuses on the following areas.

Chemicals and childhood cancer – Research shows vitamins or folic acid taken by women before conception or during pregnancy reduced the risk of their children developing certain types of leukemia.2

Environmental exposure and vaccine response – NIEHS-supported research found that exposure to common pollutants that persist in the environment, such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), may diminish infants’ immune response to mount a proper immune response after other vaccinations.3 Other NIEHS-funded researchers have found that higher arsenic exposure in school-aged children in rural Bangladesh also have an altered immune response, and a decreased response to the mumps vaccine.4

Autism and children’s exposure – NIEHS-supported research linked genetics and air pollution exposure during pregnancy to increased risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 5,6 Other NIEHS-funded researchers discovered pregnant mothers exposed to pesticides or experiencing inflammation from ailments such as infections, diabetes, or obesity also have a higher chance of having a child with ASD.7,8

Childhood exposure to lead – NIEHS-funded research suggests that even low levels of lead in children’s blood is associated with increased behavioral effects, delayed puberty, and decreased hearing, cognitive performance, and postnatal growth or height.9 Other NIEHS-funded work found lower IQ scores, decreased academic achievement, and increased behavioral problems and attention-related behaviors correlated with lead exposure.10

Air pollution and children’s health – One study, funded in part by NIEHS, reports links between prenatal exposure to air pollution and subsequent effects on children’s brain structures, as shown by brain imaging with MRI technology.11

Asthma and allergies – Scientists are still researching what may initially cause asthma. In one study, infants living in homes with high levels of mold from water-damaged buildings were more likely to develop asthma by age seven.12

E-Waste and health – NIEHS researchers study the effectiveness of recycling discarded electronic waste globally to reduce both exposures to harmful substances and health problems in pregnant women and children.13

mom pushing girl on swing

NIEHS Research Efforts

  • NIEHS Children’s Environmental Health Translation CentersApplying an innovative concept, these new Centers will support scientists, health care professionals, and local communities by developing and testing strategies for communicating information about children’s environmental health. These strategies include short courses for medical staff, social media tools, ways to report personalized data on environmental exposures, and risk communication methods.
  • Children's Health Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR) CHEAR is part of a $144 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) effort to better understand how the environment influences child health and development. CHEAR provides researchers access to a network of laboratories with ability to analyze environmental exposures along with a data science center to provide data standards, a data repository, and statistical support. One of the first initiatives was the Environmental Influences of Child Health Outcomes (ECHO).
  • ECHO programLaunched by NIH in 2016, ECHO supports multiple, synergistic, longitudinal studies using existing study populations, called cohorts, to investigate environmental exposures — including physical, chemical, biological, social, behavioral, natural and built environments — on child health and development. The studies focus on four key pediatric outcomes: upper and lower airway; obesity; pre-, peri-, and postnatal outcomes; and neurodevelopment.
  • Project TENDR: Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks With the support of NIEHS, Project TEDNR addresses the high risk of children developing brain and nervous system disorders including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disabilities, and other learning and behavioral disabilities.
Visit the Join an NIEHS Study Website

The following clinical trials are currently recruiting

Further Reading

Stories from the Environmental Factor (NIEHS Newsletter)

Podcasts

  • PFAS and Children's Health (2019) – This podcast discusses a complex group of “forever” chemicals known as PFAS and how researchers are working to understand how they may affect early development in children.
  • Economic Benefits of Improving Air Quality and Protecting Children’s Health (2018) – This podcast explores how the physical, psychological, and economic stress of chronic diseases can be taken in to account when considering air quality.

  • Crumb Rubber in Playgrounds and Children's Health (2018) – Crumb rubber comes from automobile tires ground into small pellets, and it has become a common material on play grounds. This podcast covers studies about potential health risks to children from contact with harmful chemicals in crumb rubber.

Additional Resources

The cover of the NIEHS/EPA NIEHS/EPA Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers Impact Report featuring a group of children playing together

NIEHS/EPA Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers – The NIEHS/EPA Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers were established to study how complex interactions between the environment, genetics, and other factors affect children’s health. Each center collaborates with community partners and organizations to inform, advance, and disseminate information for public health protection.

Related Health Topics


  1. Heindel JJ, Vandenberg LN. 2015. Developmental origins of health and disease: a paradigm for understanding disease cause and prevention. Curr Opin Pediatr 27: 248-53. doi.org/10.1097/mop.0000000000000191 [Abstract Heindel JJ, Vandenberg LN. 2015. Developmental origins of health and disease: a paradigm for understanding disease cause and prevention. Curr Opin Pediatr 27: 248-53. doi.org/10.1097/mop.0000000000000191]
  2. Metayer C, Milne E, Dockerty JD, Clavel J, Pombo-de-Oliveira MS, Wesseling C, Spector LG, Schüz J, Petridou E, Ezzat S, Armstrong BK, Rudant J, Koifman S, Kaatsch P, Moschovi M, Rashed WM, Welvin S, McCauley K, Hung RJ, Kang AY, Infante-Rivard C. 2014. Maternal supplementation with folic acid and other vitamins and risk of leukemia in offspring: a childhood leukemia international consortium study [Abstract Metayer C, Milne E, Dockerty JD, Clavel J, Pombo-de-Oliveira MS, Wesseling C, Spector LG, Schüz J, Petridou E, Ezzat S, Armstrong BK, Rudant J, Koifman S, Kaatsch P, Moschovi M, Rashed WM, Welvin S, McCauley K, Hung RJ, Kang AY, Infante-Rivard C. 2014. Maternal supplementation with folic acid and other vitamins and risk of leukemia in offspring: a childhood leukemia international consortium study]
  3. Grandjean P, Andersen EW, Budtz-Jørgensen E, Nielsen F, Mølbak K, Weihe P, Heilmann C. 2012. Serum vaccine antibody concentrations in children exposed to perfluorinated compounds. JAMA 307(4):391-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.2034 [Abstract Grandjean P, Andersen EW, Budtz-Jørgensen E, Nielsen F, Mølbak K, Weihe P, Heilmann C. 2012. Serum vaccine antibody concentrations in children exposed to perfluorinated compounds. JAMA 307(4):391-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.2034]
  4. Raqib R, Ahmed S, Ahsan KB, Kippler M, Akhtar E, Roy AK, Lu Y, Arifeen SE, Wagatsuma Y, Vahter M. 2017. Humoral Immunity in Arsenic-Exposed Children in Rural Bangladesh: Total Immunoglobulins and Vaccine-Specific Antibodies. Environ Health Perspect 125(6):067006. doi: 10.1289/EHP318. [Abstract Raqib R, Ahmed S, Ahsan KB, Kippler M, Akhtar E, Roy AK, Lu Y, Arifeen SE, Wagatsuma Y, Vahter M. 2017. Humoral Immunity in Arsenic-Exposed Children in Rural Bangladesh: Total Immunoglobulins and Vaccine-Specific Antibodies. Environ Health Perspect 125(6):067006. doi: 10.1289/EHP318.]
  5. Kim D, Volk H, Girirajan S, Pendergrass S, Hall MA, Verma SS, Schmidt RJ, Hansen RL, Ghosh D, Ludena-Rodriguez Y, Kim K, Ritchie MD, Hertz-Picciotto I, Selleck SB. 2017. The joint effect of air pollution exposure and copy number variation on risk for autism. Autism Res 10(9), 1470-1480 doi: 10.1002/aur.1799. [Abstract Kim D, Volk H, Girirajan S, Pendergrass S, Hall MA, Verma SS, Schmidt RJ, Hansen RL, Ghosh D, Ludena-Rodriguez Y, Kim K, Ritchie MD, Hertz-Picciotto I, Selleck SB. 2017. The joint effect of air pollution exposure and copy number variation on risk for autism. Autism Res 10(9), 1470-1480 doi: 10.1002/aur.1799.]
  6. Volk HE, Kerin T, Lurmann F, Hertz-Picciotto I, McConnell R, Campbell DB. 2014. Interaction of the MET Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Gene and Air Pollution Exposure in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Epidemiology 25(1) doi.org/10.1097/EDE.0000000000000030 [Abstract Volk HE, Kerin T, Lurmann F, Hertz-Picciotto I, McConnell R, Campbell DB. 2014. Interaction of the MET Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Gene and Air Pollution Exposure in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Epidemiology 25(1) doi.org/10.1097/EDE.0000000000000030]
  7. Brown AS, Cheslack-Postava K, Rantakokko P, Kiviranta H, Hinkka-Yli-Salomäki S, McKeaque IW, Surcel HM, Sourander A. 2018. Association of Maternal Insecticide Levels With Autism in Offspring From a National Birth Cohort. Am J Psychiatry. 175(11) doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17101129 [Abstract Brown AS, Cheslack-Postava K, Rantakokko P, Kiviranta H, Hinkka-Yli-Salomäki S, McKeaque IW, Surcel HM, Sourander A. 2018. Association of Maternal Insecticide Levels With Autism in Offspring From a National Birth Cohort. Am J Psychiatry. 175(11) doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17101129]
  8. Lyall K, Schmidt RJ, Hertz-Picciotto I. 2014. Maternal lifestyle and environmental risk factors for autism spectrum disorders. Int J Epidemiol 43(2):443-64. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyt282. [Abstract Lyall K, Schmidt RJ, Hertz-Picciotto I. 2014. Maternal lifestyle and environmental risk factors for autism spectrum disorders. Int J Epidemiol 43(2):443-64. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyt282.]
  9. Renzetti S, Just AC, Burris HH, Oken E, Amarasiriwardena C, Svensson K, Mercado-Garcia A, Cantoral A, Schnaas L, Baccarelli AA, Wright RO, Tellez-Rojo MM. 2017. The association of lead exposure during pregnancy and childhood anthropometry in the Mexican PROGRESS cohort. Environ Res 152:226-232. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2016.10.014. [Abstract Renzetti S, Just AC, Burris HH, Oken E, Amarasiriwardena C, Svensson K, Mercado-Garcia A, Cantoral A, Schnaas L, Baccarelli AA, Wright RO, Tellez-Rojo MM. 2017. The association of lead exposure during pregnancy and childhood anthropometry in the Mexican PROGRESS cohort. Environ Res 152:226-232. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2016.10.014.]
  10. Huang S, Hu S, Sánchez BN, Peterson KE, Ettinger AS, Lamadrid-Figueroa H, Schnaas L, Mercado-García A, Wright RO, Basu N, Cantonwine DE, Hernández-Avila M, Téllez-Rojo MM. 2016. Childhood Blood Lead Levels and Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A Cross-Sectional Study of Mexican Children. Environ Health Perspect DOI:10.1289/ehp.1510067. [Abstract Huang S, Hu S, Sánchez BN, Peterson KE, Ettinger AS, Lamadrid-Figueroa H, Schnaas L, Mercado-García A, Wright RO, Basu N, Cantonwine DE, Hernández-Avila M, Téllez-Rojo MM. 2016. Childhood Blood Lead Levels and Symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A Cross-Sectional Study of Mexican Children. Environ Health Perspect DOI:10.1289/ehp.1510067.]
  11. Peterson BS, Rauh VA, Bansal R, Hao X, Toth Z, Nati G, Walsh K, Miller RL, Arias F, Semanek D, Perera F. 2015. Effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) on the development of brain white matter, cognition, and behavior in later childhood. JAMA Psychiatry 72(6) doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.57. [Abstract Peterson BS, Rauh VA, Bansal R, Hao X, Toth Z, Nati G, Walsh K, Miller RL, Arias F, Semanek D, Perera F. 2015. Effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) on the development of brain white matter, cognition, and behavior in later childhood. JAMA Psychiatry 72(6) doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.57.]
  12. Reponen T, Lockey J, Bernstein DI, Vesper SJ, Levin L, Khurana Hershey GK, Zheng S, Ryan P, Grinshpun SA, Villareal M, Lemasters. 2012. Infant origins of childhood asthma associated with specific molds. J Allergy Clin Immunol 130(3) doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2012.05.030 [Abstract Reponen T, Lockey J, Bernstein DI, Vesper SJ, Levin L, Khurana Hershey GK, Zheng S, Ryan P, Grinshpun SA, Villareal M, Lemasters. 2012. Infant origins of childhood asthma associated with specific molds. J Allergy Clin Immunol 130(3) doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2012.05.030]
  13. Heacock M, Kelly CB, Asante KA, Birnbaum LS, Bergman AL, Bruné MN, Buka I, Carpenter DO, Chen A, Huo X, Kamel M, Landrigan PJ, Magalini F, Diaz-Barriga F, Neira M, Omar M, Pascale A, Ruchirawat M, Sly L, Sly PD, Van den Berg M, Suk WA. 2016. E-Waste and Harm to Vulnerable Populations: A Growing Global Problem. Environ Health Perspect 124(5) doi: 10.1289/ehp.1509699. [Abstract Heacock M, Kelly CB, Asante KA, Birnbaum LS, Bergman AL, Bruné MN, Buka I, Carpenter DO, Chen A, Huo X, Kamel M, Landrigan PJ, Magalini F, Diaz-Barriga F, Neira M, Omar M, Pascale A, Ruchirawat M, Sly L, Sly PD, Van den Berg M, Suk WA. 2016. E-Waste and Harm to Vulnerable Populations: A Growing Global Problem. Environ Health Perspect 124(5) doi: 10.1289/ehp.1509699.]
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