Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Centers

Investing in our Children’s Futures

By Jim Johnson 

One of the greatest threats to children today comes from the environment. Exposure to pesticides, pollution, and heavy metals while in the womb or during early periods of development can cause serious and lifelong health concerns. To protect children from environmental threats and help them live healthier lives, EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) created the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers (Children’s Centers). Teams of multidisciplinary experts at Children’s Centers across the country are looking at how children’s health is impacted by environmental and chemical exposures, epigenetics, non-chemical stressors and other factors with a focus on translating this research into practical information for public use.

Silhouette of children playing outside This year, EPA and NIEHS are awarding five new Children’s Center grants. Research supported under these awards includes the interplay of air pollution, particulate matter and obesity on asthma among inner city children; prenatal and early childhood pollutant exposure and adverse birth outcomes; air pollution, polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and adolescent cognitive, emotional, behavioral health outcomes; cumulative environmental exposures and increased risk for childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia; and the effects of environmental contaminants on the microbiome and neurodevelopment.  Each of the newly funded Children’s Centers is receiving between 1.25-1.5 million dollars per year for up to four years.

There are many obstacles to protecting children’s environmental health. Understanding the complexity of these challenges is just one way that EPA and its partners are reducing harmful environmental exposure and making the world a safer place for children and our communities.

About the Author: Dr. James H. Johnson Jr. is the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Asthma Awareness Month: Tackling Prevention

By Sally Darney 

SoccerplayerwithballWhen my daughter decided to join a soccer team, I was delighted.  Sports would provide healthy exercise, along with a host of other physical and mental benefits.  So we were dismayed when she complained of tightness in her throat and difficulty breathing during the games.

A trip to the doctor revealed “exercise-induced asthma,” but thankfully she was able to manage her symptoms with an inhaler and stay on the team.  I had little awareness of this disease at the time, but now know that childhood asthma is common, affecting nearly one in ten American children.

This month we celebrate Asthma Awareness Month learning about asthma triggers and the latest advances in medical treatment and comprehensive care for our children.

But what causes asthma to begin with?  Asthma is a curious disease that can first appear in toddlers, school-aged children like my daughter, or even in adults. Furthermore, studies have shown ethnic and economic-related disparities of who is most at risk. African American children, children of certain Hispanic groups, and children living in poor communities are more likely to get asthma, and to suffer more severe attacks, than Caucasian children and those in the higher social-economic groups. (For more information, download America’s Children and the Environment.)

This disparity suggests that the causes of asthma involve a complex interplay of environmental and social-economic factors, which in turn interact with a genetic-based predisposition. These factors can  play a role in both causing the disease itself, and in exacerbating the symptoms.

EPA researchers and partners from across the federal government are banding together to address asthma causes and disparities.  I was fortunate to be on the taskforce behind the landmark report: The Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities.

Working with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies, EPA is helping implement the Plan, which emphasizes how research into the causes of asthma can help inform ways to tackle this burdensome disease.

We can’t change our genetics, but we can change the “environmental stressors” that contribute to, and cause, asthma.  To advance that work, researchers in ORD and from across the network of Centers for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention, co-sponsored by EPA and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, are exploring causes of asthma that can be prevented even before a baby is born. For instance, recent research has revealed that women who smoke during pregnancy, or are exposed to high levels of air pollution and/or certain environmental chemicals, are at increased risk of having a baby who develops asthma as a child.

Armed with more knowledge about the causes of asthma, pregnant women, mothers of young children, health care providers and decision makers can take actions to avoid risky exposures and provide healthy, asthma-free environments for women and children—preventing asthma from the start.

I’ll never know why my daughter got asthma, but I am happy to work at a place that is looking to prevent it. I have faith that together our research will do that, and eliminate racial and ethnic asthma disparities. Whether you play soccer or not, it’s a goal we can all shoot for.

About the Author: Sally Perreault Darney, Ph.D. is a senior health scientist at EPA working on  coordinating Agency research on children’s environmental health.      

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.