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Your Environment. Your Health.

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The University of Illinois Children's Environmental Health Research Center

Center Overview

Center Location: Urbana-Champaign, IL

Public Health Impacts: Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) found in plastics and personal care products pose a significant risk to young children and adolescents. The University of Illinois Children’s Environmental Health Research Center is studying the effects of exposure to EDCs during two critical developmental windows – the prenatal period and puberty – and addressing whether obesity or a high fat diet interacts with EDC exposures to increase risk. The center is also working to communicate research findings to parents, child care providers, health providers and policy makers.

Primary Environmental Exposures: EDCs such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), as well as high fat diet

Primary Health Outcomes: Child development, including neurodevelopmental, neurobehavioral, and reproductive outcomes

Center Details

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Center Investigators

Principal Investigator: Susan Schantz, Ph.D. 

Project 1 Leader: Susan Schantz, Ph.D. 

Project 2 Leader: Jodi Flaws, Ph.D. 

Project 3 Leader: Janice Juraska, Ph.D. 

Community Outreach & Translation Core Leader: Barbara Fiese, Ph.D. 

Center Description & Activities

The goal of the University of Illinois Children's Environmental Health Research Center is to study the effects of exposure to BPA, phthalates, and other chemicals found in plastics and personal care products on neurological and reproductive development and function. The center's research is also addressing whether obesity or a diet high in saturated fats interacts with exposures to these chemicals to increase risk, and whether oxidative stress and/or inflammation play a role in mediating the effects of these chemicals. Exposures during two critical developmental windows – the prenatal period and the adolescent/pubertal period – are being studied in human populations and in parallel animal models. An important goal of the center is to communicate research findings to parents, childcare providers, healthcare providers and policy makers through the Community Outreach and Translation Core.

Project 1: Birth Cohort IKIDS: Illinois Kids Development Study

Project leader: Susan Schantz, Ph.D.

Investigators leading the birth cohort study, IKIDS, use novel methods to assess the impact of prenatal exposure to phthalates, BPA, and other EDCs on the physical and behavioral development of children from birth to 5 years of age. Steroid hormones play a critical organizing role in physical and brain development during the prenatal period, and exposure to EDCs could result in behavioral deficits or changes in the typical pattern of sex differences in physical development and cognitive function. Thus, investigators are examining the impact of exposure to EDCs in general, as well as sex-specific measures of physical health and cognitive function.

In addition, investigators are concerned with recent findings suggesting that maternal obesity may be linked to various health problems in offspring. A large percentage of reproductive age women consume diets high in saturated fats, and are either overweight or obese. Thus, another important goal of the study is to investigate if maternal obesity or high fat diet increase health risks resulting from prenatal exposure to EDCs.

Project 2: Endocrine Disruptors and Diet: Effects on the Developing Cortex

Project leader: Jodi Flaws, Ph.D. 

This project will use mouse models to determine the mechanisms by which BPA and phthalates, together with a high fat diet, adversely affect the development and function of the male and female reproductive system. Specifically, this project will test the hypothesis that BPA and phthalates cause oxidative stress in developing and adolescent gonads and lead to infertility and/or premature reproductive senescence. Furthermore, this project will investigate whether exposure to BPA and phthalates interact with a high fat diet to adversely affect the reproductive system, and whether these outcomes are transgenerational and are associated with epigenetic modifications in the offspring.

Project 3: Endocrine Disruptors and Diet: Effects on the Developing Cortex

Project leader: Janice Juraska, Ph.D. 

This project will use a rat model to investigate whether exposure BPA and phthalates during the perinatal or adolescent period can alter the developing brain and behavior. To better model the parallel human studies, some of the rats will also be fed a high fat diet. Investigators will administer tests of social behavior and cognition and will examine anatomical features of the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that plays a role in cognitive function.

Community Outreach & Translation Core

Core leader: Barbara Fiese, Ph.D.

The aim of the Community Outreach and Translation Core (COTC) is to communicate with the public about reasonable actions a family, child care provider, or school can take to reduce children’s exposure to EDCs. To protect children's health, one preventive measure is to reduce use of plastics, tin cans, and aluminum cans. These types of food and beverage packaging can release EDCs into the body when we drink and eat. Eating and serving more fresh foods is another preventive alternative. Other strategies aim to prevent children from inhaling chemicals or absorbing them through their skin. This may involve opting away from manufactured fragrances and scents in cleaning products and personal care products, and adopting effective green cleaning regimens. The COTC also defines upstream policy opportunities to reduce EDCs in a child's environment.

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