A new phase of Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers, or Children’s Centers, has been funded by NIEHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The five centers, part of a program originally established in 1998, will study the unique vulnerability of children to pollutants in the environment, which is a perennial priority for NIEHS.
“We know that environmental factors can interfere with development, both in the womb and during childhood, which can have short-term and long-term health effects,” said NIEHS Children’s Centers Program Director Kimberly Gray, Ph.D. “The Children’s Centers have been instrumental in identifying environmental stressors that we should be concerned about.”
New centers to study the influence of early life environments
The Center for Children’s Health, the Environment, the Microbiome, and Metabolomics, known as C-CHEM2, will be the first Children’s Center to study how the microbiome, or the millions of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies, affects preterm birth and infant health.
The center plans to follow 300 pregnant African-American women through birth and for 18 months afterwards, measuring physical, social, and behavioral factors in the environment, and brain development in the children.
It will be led by Linda McCauley, Ph.D., and P. Barry Ryan, Ph.D., of Emory University. “The type of delivery, genetics, feeding, postnatal stress, and maternal-infant interaction are all vital aspects that affect long-term health outcomes,” McCauley explained.
The new Center for Research on Early Childhood Exposure and Development, or CRECE, based at Northeastern University, is also interested in how an expectant mother’s environment during pregnancy may influence early childhood health. CRECE, which means grow in Spanish, will follow the health of approximately 800 children through age four years in Puerto Rico, where there are numerous Superfund and hazardous waste sites. The pregnant mothers’ levels of exposure to hazardous chemicals were documented in a previous study and will be compared with the children’s health under the leadership of Akram Alshawabkeh, Ph.D.
Efforts to understand childhood leukemia, asthma, and brain development
According to Gray, the three renewed Children’s Centers all study health conditions that substantially burden children’s health. The University of California at Berkeley-based Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment (CIRCLE) will explore how environmental factors and immune system changes may combine to contribute to childhood leukemia, the incidence of which has increased by approximately 35 percent since 1975, according Catherine Metayer, M.D., Ph.D., CIRCLE director.
Asthma is another major children’s health concern. The Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment (CCAUE) will study how obese children with asthma respond to air pollution. Under the leadership of Nadia Hansel, M.D., and Greg Diette, M.D., the center has already shown that replacing unvented gas stoves can reduce indoor air pollution, and that consumption of broccoli sprouts may be insufficient to prevent lung inflammation from indoor air pollutants.
The Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH), led by Frederica Perera, Dr.P.H., Ph.D., and Brad Peterson, M.D., is studying how air pollution affects children in other ways. By following a group of inner city children from the womb through adolescence, they found that high prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), common air pollutants from combustion of fossil fuels, may be linked to problems with brain development and obesity. In the next phase of the center, they will study how these prenatal air pollution exposures may affect adolescent health, including mental health and high-risk behaviors.
Priority on community engagement
All of the projects engage the public through Community Outreach and Research Translation Cores. CCCEH researchers, for example, continually inform their local communities, policymakers, and the wider public about the varied ways that exposure to PAHs can harm children’s health. At Northeastern, NIEHS council member Phil Brown, Ph.D., leads efforts to enhance environmental health education by reporting research results in a way that parents can understand.
Ryan, the co-director of C-CHEM2 at Emory, emphasizes the importance of this aspect of the Children’s Centers. “We listen and provide feedback to community members. They listen and provide feedback to us. And in both cases, we learn something,” he said.
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)