By Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
A good start lasts a lifetime. That’s the philosophy that drives the children’s environmental health research supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS.
Key discoveries have emerged from this research. We know that children are more vulnerable than adults to certain chemicals, pollutants, foods, and activities. We know that there are periods of time, or windows of susceptibility, when developing minds and bodies are especially sensitive to disruption by environmental exposures. These times include the prenatal period and puberty. We are also finding that the health effects from childhood exposures may not appear until years later.
Over the past seventeen years, the NIEHS and the EPA have jointly funded 23 Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers, or Children’s Centers, across the country. The Children’s Centers examine the effects of air pollution, metals, pesticides, and other environmental contaminants on a number of children’s health outcomes.
There are enormous benefits to our partnership with EPA. Together, our funding goes farther. This allows us to make sure that our research addresses the specific health concerns expressed by the public, and helps to speed the translation of research findings to treatment or prevention of disease.
Here are some examples of recent research findings from the Children’s Centers:
- When pregnant mothers are exposed to common air pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), their children are more likely to have lower IQs or symptoms of anxiety, depression, or attention deficit.
- Some chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA) or phthalates, may interfere with hormone function in the body. This can change the timing of puberty, have detrimental effects on behavior, or increase the risk of asthma.
- Children may have increased risk of developing some types of leukemia when fathers are exposed to pesticides around the time of conception, or mothers are exposed during pregnancy.
The mission of NIEHS is to discover how the environment affects people in order to promote healthier lives. For children’s environmental health, our partnership with EPA helps us to achieve that mission.
About the Author: Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., is director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). A board certified toxicologist, Birnbaum has served as a federal scientist for nearly 35 years. Prior to her appointment as NIEHS and NTP director in 2009, she spent 19 years at EPA, where she directed the largest division focusing on environmental health research.