Jan. 22 2019

Out of Harm’s Way

The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health is celebrating 20 years of progress in protecting children from environmental threats. An event on January 31 will mark the milestone while looking ahead to the significant work needed to further protect children’s health.

Founded in 1998, CCCEH has organized research studies in New York City and globally that have uncovered the harms of early childhood exposures to air pollution, pesticides, and other environmental chemicals. Through partnerships with community environmental justice groups, the Center’s findings have led to several important policy changes, from the decision to phase-out dirty diesel city buses in New York City to Hawaii’s recent ban on the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos.

The centerpiece of the Center’s research, the Mothers and Newborns study enrolled more than 700 pregnant women from Northern Manhattan and the Bronx, beginning in 1998. To record their exposures to air pollution, mothers wore a lightweight backpack filled with air sampling equipment. Levels of other chemicals like pesticides and BPA were measured through dust collected in participants’ homes and umbilical cord blood. The health of children born to these mothers has been followed since birth.

“Once it was believed that the placenta provided a near impenetrable barrier between the fetus and the outside world,” says Frederica Perera, founding director of CCCEH and professor of Environmental Health Sciences. “This study and others like it have given us incontrovertible evidence that chemicals in the air mothers breathe and the chemicals she encounters in the diet and consumer products reach the fetus. Furthermore, it is this prenatal period of rapid development when the fetus is most vulnerable. As researchers, our role is to identify health risks to children so that they can be minimized or eliminated.”

With continuous funding by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency, CCCEH studies have helped establish the fetal origins of disease. A series of articles in peer-review journals traced the connections between early life exposure to various chemicals and risk for later outcomes, from low birth weight and asthma to cognitive and behavioral problems, even obesity. Stress from poverty exacerbated some of these problems. Moreover, the researchers identified evidence that these chemicals modify DNA, potentially affecting the way genes are interpreted by the body.

These research findings were much more than an academic exercise; they provided key evidence for policy changes, including the introduction of clean public buses in New York City and the industry phase-out of bisphenol A (BPA) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)—chemicals used in plastics and flame-retardants. Research into the pesticide chlorpyrifos coincided with the ban of the chemical for use in the home; the evidence showed that babies born after the ban had markedly lower pesticide levels than those born before. Then in 2016, the EPA recommended extending the ban to agricultural use. While the Trump Administration chose to ignore the evidence, in 2018, Hawaii, acting in part on evidence presented by Professor Virginia Rauh, banned chlorpyrifos in the state

Meanwhile, in parallel studies of air pollution in Poland and China, Center researchers showed the health risks of air pollution were evident well beyond the Big Apple. A study in Tongliang, China, was conducted as the city closed its coal-fired power plant. Once again, the benefits were evident in the data: decreased exposure to air pollution in utero was linked with improved childhood developmental scores and higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a key protein critical for early brain development.

Today, even as the children in the Mothers and Newborns study are now adolescents or young adults, the Center continues to track their health. In parallel, their younger siblings are also being studied, along with a new cohort of mothers and children enrolled beginning in 2013. Many new developments are on the horizon. This year, the Center is launching a new program led by Perera dedicated to translating research into policy. At the same time, researchers are introducing new tools like a silicon wristband which, like backpack air monitors, can measure exposure to various toxins.

“We have more data than ever before, which is allowing us to ask new questions,” says Julie Herbstman, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences. “For instance, we need to understand the risks of chemical substitutes for BPA and PBDEs. We also need to look at more than one chemical at a time, to understand how exposures combine. Everything we are learning about exposures we share with our community partners to equip them with information to help protect children from being harmed. Our goal is to do everything we can to help families give their children a healthy start.”