Frederica Perera Wins Heinz Award for the Environment

Prestigious Honor Recognizes Her Commitment to Uncovering Environmental Threats to Children’s Health

April 23, 2015

Frederica Perera, DrPH, PhD, the founder and director of the Columbia Children’s Center for Environmental Health (CCCEH) at the Mailman School of Public Health, is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Heinz Award for the Environment, recognizing her work to pioneer the field of molecular epidemiology and for her decades-long research to illuminate the health consequences to children of prenatal and childhood exposures to hazardous chemicals.

She is one of six winners of the 20th Heinz Awards, which come with a $250,000 prize and honor the memory of the late U.S. Senator John Heinz, recognizing those who have made outstanding contributions to the arts and humanities; environment; human condition; public policy; and technology, the economy and employment.

“Frederica Perera has extended the frontiers of knowledge about children’s health and its relationship with the environment. But she is not a scientist who stops where her curiosity leads her. An impeccable researcher, she dares also to speak the truth about what she sees, to raise alarm bells about what is happening to our children, and to spark changes in policy and behavior,” said Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation in a statement. “She is not only a pioneer in her field, she is also a courageous role model for women in the sciences and for all scientists whose findings inspire them to speak difficult but important truths about how we are affecting the world around us and through that our own health.”

Dr. Perera’s team at CCCEH is renowned for its Mothers and Newborns Study, which tracks a large group of children in the United States, specifically in New York City, from womb through adolescence, and for its parallel studies in Poland and China. The research examines how environmental toxicants affect young bodies, causing changes at the molecular level that have been linked to cancer, asthma and neurobehavioral problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

The research has shown, among other things, that children with a high prenatal exposure to pollutants common in vehicle exhaust and power plant emissions exhibited more signs of developmental delay at age 3 and more anxiety, depression and attention problems, including ADHD, by age 9. The New York City study has also been instrumental in exposing the potential dangers of insecticides, the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) and cockroach and mouse proteins and how these affect young bodies. Most recently, Dr. Perera led a study that found reducing air pollution in New York City would generate substantial economic benefits by improving IQ scores for low-income children. It was the first study to establish connections between IQ development and exposure to air pollution, and the resulting economic impact.  

Backed by her research findings, Dr. Perera has become an influential advocate for a fuller recognition of the health and economic benefits of preventing prenatal and childhood exposures to environmental contaminants. These include the benefits of reducing harm from fossil fuel burning, the major source of toxic air pollutants and driver of climate change through emissions of CO2.  She has worked to translate science to policy beginning in 1979 with a book detailing the environmental and health risks of airborne fine particulate matter. More recently, in 2010, Dr. Perera provided testimony before a Committee of the United States Senate in support of the Safe Chemicals Act, and in 2014 she testified before the New York City Council Committee on Environmental Protection. Her Center’s research has prompted changes at the local level to reduce emissions from traffic and residential heating and to eliminate toxic pesticides in city housing.

“It’s critically important to recognize that environmental exposures play a significant role in most of the health problems that burden us today—including disorders that tragically damage the well-being of our children—and that are contributing to the major health disparities in the United States,” said Dr. Perera. “The good news is that we can protect all our children and give them a far greater chance of maturing into healthy, productive adults by understanding the risks posed by various pollutants and acting now to reduce their presence in our air, water and food.”