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Your Environment. Your Health.

New Children's Environmental Health Centers to Study Causes of Autism and Other Disorders

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)

News Release

Archive - New Contact Information

For more information about this archival news release, please contact Christine Flowers, Director, Office of Communications & Public Liaison at (919) 541-3665.
Thursday, October 25, 2001, 12:00 p.m. EDT
Contact: Lou Rozier, NIEHS
(919) 541-1993

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences ( and the Environmental Protection Agency ( today jointly announced four new children's environmental health research centers - centers that will focus research on childhood autism and such behavioral problems as attention deficit disorder.

The centers will each be funded at $5 million, or approximately $1 million per year for five years beginning in August. Two of the centers - at the University of California at Davis and at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey -- will study environmental factors that may be related to autism.

A center at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana ( will assess the impact of exposure to mercury and PCBs among two groups of Asian-Americans in Wisconsin, whose diets are heavy in fish from the Great Lakes.

The fourth center, at Children's Hospital of Cincinnati, Ohio ( , will work with community participants to assess the impact of reducing pollutants in the home and neighborhood on children's hearing, behavior and test scores.

"These centers will help us understand whether environmental factors play a role in the progress of autism and other childhood disorders and illnesses," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said. "Ultimately the research conducted at these centers will allow us to better target our health and prevention efforts in order to do the most to improve the lives of America's children."

EPA and NIEHS, which is a part of the federal National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services, already fund eight children's environmental health research centers.

In jointly announcing the new center grants with EPA Administrator Christie Whitman at the Children's Hospital of Cincinnati today, NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., said, "We all witness the miraculous development of newborns and young children as they undergo great physical and mental changes in just a few years. But sometimes a child tragically loses, or never attains, his or her ability to speak or interact socially. Other times, a child's development orconcentration is impaired. We know that in some cases, lead exposure has been the culprit, so we as a nation have removed lead from paint and gasoline - and taken other steps so that kids today are testing smarter than youngsters a generation ago. But lead is not the only potential developmental toxin. We want to see what other environmental substances might trigger developmental problems - so that we can reduce the exposures and prevent the damage."

EPA Administrator Whitman said, "These new centers - and the eight already in existence across the country - will continue to perform and apply research that can help shed light on the links between the environment and the health of our children. They can help us take children's health protection to a new level, and I am proud to be working with NIEHS and everyone at UC-Davis, the University of Illinois, Robert Wood Johnson, and this wonderful Children's Hospital to make it happen."

Here are the research programs planned at the four new centers:

  • UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT DAVIS ( - Under Isaac Pessah, professor of molecular biosciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the center will investigate how environmental risk factors may contribute to childhood autism. There has been speculation among both parents and health professionals that the exposure of unborn and newborn infants to various metals or chemicals or even vaccines may trigger autism, which, at its most severe, is a withdrawn state in which children do not interact with their surroundings and other people. The center's research will include a large case-control epidemiological study of various exposures and the development of autism. The team of investigators will include scientists from the NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences Center at UC Davis and the NIEHS Superfund Basic Research program, also at UC Davis. The work will be carried out within the infrastructure of the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, which stands for Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, which has a strong relationship with the autism advocacy community.

  • ROBERT WOOD JOHNSON MEDICAL SCHOOL/UNIVERSITY OF MEDICINE AND DENTISTRY OF NEW JERSEY ( - Under George Lambert as principal investigator, this Center for Childhood Neurotoxicology and Assessment will seek to determine the possible influence of mercury, lead and valproic acid, a drug commonly used to control seizures, on autism, learning disabilities and regression -- a situation in which children who appear to be developing normally start losing their language and social skills and lapse into autism. Studies will look at critical windows for brain development in the forebrain and hindbrain and will attempt to link exposures or disturbances at these times to subsequent behavior. Researchers will also look at children's variable genetic susceptibility to environmental poisons. MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) will be used to see if children with higher exposures to environmental poisons have different patterns of brain growth and development.

  • Children's Hospital of Cincinnati, Ohio ( - Bruce Lanphear will head a research program in which cooperating community participants will attempt to lower lead levels in their homes so that their children accumulate only traces of lead (2.7 ug/dL or lower). The program will test the idea that keeping children's lead levels very low will permit them to score higher on IQ and other tests, and will result in less hearing loss and fewer behavioral problems at age 3. A second research program will test whether children's developmental problems can be linked to their exposures, while unborn and newborn babies, to pesticides, environmental tobacco smoke and lead.

  • University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana ( - Under Susan Schantz of the Friend's Children's Environmental Health Center, scientists will work with nearby Hmong and Laotian communities -- both of which migrated from Laos to the United States in numbers after the Vietnam War. Because they have a traditional diet heavy in fish and now live along the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, they have consumed PCBs and mercury in lake fish. The center research will to study the impact of the contaminants on the motor, sensory and mental development of their children. Researchers will also study, in laboratory rodents, the mechanisms by which these pollutant cause neurological harm. The work will expand a longstanding research partnership with the communities.

The four new centers join eight already established (in 1998) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Washington, the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, at Ann Arbor, the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Md., Columbia University, in New York City, and the Mount Sinai Medical Center, also in New York City, in partnership with community groups in East Harlem.

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