Exposure to contaminants in the womb or during childhood can lead to a variety of health effects, including developmental and behavior problems, childhood diseases, or an increased risk of chronic diseases later in life. Children and the developing fetus are particularly vulnerable to environmental contaminants because their organ, immune, and metabolism systems are not fully mature. In addition, infants tend to spend a lot of time crawling on the floor and putting their hands in their mouths, which can increase the likelihood of their exposure to contaminants.
What NIEHS is Doing
NIEHS supports a broad range of research focusing on contaminants children may encounter, such as metals and endocrine disruptors as well as pollutants found in the water, air, or food. Researchers supported by NIEHS are investigating how early life or low dose environmental exposures can have adverse effects on body systems by studying outcomes in children such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive dysfunction, behavior, asthma, neurodevelopment, immune development, sexual maturation, diabetes, obesity, and early cardiovascular changes.
Researchers are seeking to identify biomarkers that could indicate exposure to a chemical or susceptibility to disease. They are also seeking to understand how stress and the social environment may influence the way that environmental exposures affect children’s health. New research areas concern the microbiome, placental epigenetics, and immune dysregulation as potential mechanisms for linking early life exposures to short and long-term diseases and disabilities.
Children’s health research efforts span many NIEHS program areas. Key efforts include:
- The NIEHS/EPA Children's Environmental Health & Disease Prevention Research Centers support research projects identifying the health effects of environmental factors on children. Scientists at these centers study the short- and long-term effects of contaminants and social stressors on childhood health outcomes. They also work with community partners and health care providers to share research findings to reduce children’s exposure to contaminants.
- The Autism Research Program funds research aimed at understanding how environmental exposures early in life may combine with genetic susceptibility to alter brain development to create the core symptoms of autism. This important research is helping to inform prevention efforts that reduce, or counteract, the effects of environmental factors that might be linked with autism.
- The Children's Health Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR) provides children’s health researchers with access to laboratory resources and tools for analyzing their biological samples for chemicals and exposure biomarkers. This information may provide important clues about how the environment affects children’s health. A key component of CHEAR is the Data Repository, Analysis, and Science Center, which stores all data and provides support for statistical analysis and interpretation.
- NIEHS is part of the trans-NIH effort Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program, a seven-year research initiative that will expand existing cohort studies to investigate how environmental factors affect child health and development. Research focuses on upper and lower airway health and development, obesity, and brain and nervous system development.
- Through its World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences, NIEHS works with other WHO Collaborating Centres in Children’s Environmental Health and leading research institutions to help inform decision makers about the importance of preventing children’s exposures and reducing children’s health risks around the world.
- Children’s health is also addressed through the NIEHS Global Environmental Health Program, which supports research, research translation, and capacity building in the areas of cookstoves and indoor air pollution, climate change and human health, and global environmental health and sustainable development.
- The NIEHS Powering Research through Innovative Methods for Mixtures in Epidemiology, or PRIME, program supports researchers working to develop innovative statistical, data science, or other quantitative approaches that can be used to reveal how complex chemical mixtures lead to various adverse health effects in children and adults.
- NIEHS invests in well-characterized cohorts that include pregnant mothers, infants, children, and youth. Studies using these important epidemiology resources are helping to reveal key determinants of environmentally-related diseases and health problems in children.
- NIEHS supports a variety of research projects through the National Toxicology Program, the Superfund Research Program, Partnerships for Environmental Public Health, and other programs that apply the latest scientific innovations and approaches to protect children from harmful environmental contaminants.
Kimberly Gray, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
530 Davis Dr
Durham, NC 27713