Featured NYC Research Findings

Mothers and Newborns Study

The Center’s largest study is the Mothers and Newborns Study in New York City (NYC). In 1998, the Center launched a birth cohort and has been following 725 African-American and Latino pregnant women and their children through early adolescence. The mothers and children reside in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx, areas that are disproportionately burdened by environmental pollution.  Sources include diesel bus depots, major commercial roadways, and substandard housing. The children’s health and development are monitored from birth through adolescence.

Some current and past environmental exposures of concern include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), chlorpyrifos, pyrethroids, secondhand smoke, bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and pest allergens. Some, like PAH and second-hand smoke, are mutagenic and carcinogenic; others are endocrine disruptors capable of affecting child growth, development, and health.

PAH are a group of chemicals released into the air during the incomplete burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline, diesel, coal, and other organic substances. Secondhand tobacco smoke contains thousands of toxic chemicals, some of which are known to be cancer-causing. Chlorpyrifos is a toxic pesticide that can be inhaled following the use of spray pesticides indoors, and young children have greater exposure because they spend more time on the floor where pesticides are commonly applied. Chlorpyrifos has since been replaced with another group of chemicals called pyrethroids. Plastics and other consumer products contain chemicals such as BPA and phthalates that can mimic or block natural hormones and thus are capable of disrupting early development. PBDEs are widely used flame retardant compounds that are applied to textiles, building materials, and electronic equipment and are thought to have endocrine disrupting effects. Exposure to pest allergens from cockroaches, dust mites, and rodents can cause serious allergic and asthmatic reactions. Because they co-occur in the urban setting, these contaminants may have cumulative and even interactive effects.

During pregnancy, the pollutants can cross the placenta and expose the developing fetus. Exposure beginning in the womb can result in delays in cognitive development, asthma and other respiratory symptoms, obesity and metabolic disorders, or changes at the molecular level that could increase children’s cancer risk. Children in the Center study cohort are representative of children living in other urban areas, particularly underserved populations that are disproportionately exposed to harmful pollutants. Following is a summary of selected key findings from the Center’s research study:

Click on the links below to jump to our key findings on specific health topics of interest:


  • Within the NYC cohort, BPA was detected in over 90% of maternal urine samples. BPA was detected in over 95% of the children’s samples, with greater concentrations of BPA found in children at both ages 3 years and 5 years than in mothers.

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Fetal Growth and Neurobehavioral Development

Center research has shown that prenatal exposures to PAH, pesticides, secondhand smoke, and PBDEs are linked to reduced fetal growth and developmental problems in young children. These findings have important implications for health and learning ability because early developmental delays and attentional/behavioral problems such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can affect later school performance.




Polybrominated Dephenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

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Childhood asthma in urban communities is a serious disease that accounts for a significant proportion of urgent pediatric health care visits. Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that causes difficulty breathing, and occurs most commonly in people who become sensitized to certain allergens in our environment. People with asthma react to different triggers. Common triggers include air pollution, diesel exhaust particles, viruses, environmental tobacco smoke, cockroach particles, dust mites, cat or dog dander, outdoor pollen, and mold. These exposures also may contribute to the early development of the disease.

Products of Fossil Fuel Combustion (PAH and Metals)

Pest and Pet Allergens

Secondhand Smoke

  • Combined prenatal exposure to airborne PAH and postnatal secondhand smoke results in the increased likelihood of respiratory and asthma-like symptoms at one to two years of age and at five to six years of age.
  • Children who were exposed to acetaminophen (active ingredient in Tylenol) prenatally were more likely to have asthma symptoms at age five. Acetaminophen has become increasingly common among women in pregnancy, which coincided with a doubling of the prevalence of asthma among children. These findings suggest caution in the use of acetaminophen in pregnancy.

Maternal Distress

Feeling distressed during pregnancy may be associated with asthma symptoms during childhood. Many emotions can occur during pregnancy but if high demoralization is reported, it could impact the risk of your child wheezing, a common symptom of asthma, during childhood. Demoralization denotes nonspecific psychological distress that may result in an individual’s inability to cope with stressful situations.

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Cancer Risk

This study is finding that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is associated with genetic damage in babies before they are born. This type of genetic damage has been generally associated with increased cancer risk later in life.

  • There were marked inter-individual variations among children in response to prenatal exposure to the same level of toxicants, indicating the potential importance of gene-environment interactions in health outcomes. We have identified significant interactions between genetic variance and PAH on these outcomes, suggesting that some individuals are placed at greater risk of environment toxicants and carcinogens. These variations were seen in both the NYC and Polish cohort.

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Interventions and Impact on Community Education and Policy

Partnership with WE ACT for Environmental Justice

An important aspect of our research translational work is through our community partnerships. From its inception, the Center has worked in partnership with, and provided data to a Community Advisory and Stakeholder Board of health service and environmental advocacy organizations in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx in working collaboration with our lead partner, WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT).

With WE ACT, the Center developed the Healthy Home Healthy Child (HHHC) community education campaign in 2000. The campaign provides families, physicians, and their patients with practical tips for reducing harmful environmental exposures and protecting children’s health, and information on clean air campaigns in the community. HHHC has also provided training workshops for community leaders and health professionals. In 2005 HHHC won the the US EPA’s prestigious Environmental Health Excellence Award for effectively translating the results of our research into usable information.

WE ACT incorporates Center findings into regular education seminars, promotes health events, and supports and translates institutional research for the education of Northern Manhattan residents. The organization developed a citywide network, Our Housing is Our Health, which is comprised of several organizations collaborating to empower communities to mitigate health effects of environmental exposures related to poor-quality housing. WE ACT has also organized a number of briefings, presentations, case-studies for publication, and testimony to public interest groups and government agencies.

Other recent impacts of WE ACT’s work in New York City, informed in part by Center research, include:

  • The introduction of the Asthma Free Housing Act by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and City Council member Rosie Mendez in April 2008. The bill seeks to improve indoor air quality in the homes of NYC asthma sufferers

  • The coordination of the inaugural taskforce meetings on rodent control with NY State Senator Bill Perkins, and pass BPA law banning the chemical in children’s products and toys.

  • Data from the Center has contributed to WE ACT’s 18-year campaign, “Clean Fuel, Clean Air, Good Health.”

  • Center findings have informed the Safer Chemical Healthy Families advocacy campaign, a nationwide effort to pass smart federal policies that protect American families from toxic chemicals.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

  • We also estimated the annual costs of preschool special education services for low-income NYC children with developmental delay due to PAH exposure. U.S. law requires that states provide preschool special education to all children between the ages of three and five years who exhibit significant delay or disorder related to cognition, communication, adaptive behavior, social-emotional development, or motor development. Researchers estimated costs to be over $13.7 million per year for Medicaid births in NYC. The projected cost supports policies to reduce level of PAH in NYC air.

Pesticides and Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

  • Despite a regulatory ban on residential use of chlorpyrifos, agricultural applications continue in the US and abroad. In September 2008, at a public hearing of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Panel, Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (“Scientific Issues Associated with Chlorpyrifos and PON1”), the Panel unanimously recommended that EPA accept the epidemiologic evidence that chlorpyrifos may act as a neurotoxicant in human beings.

  • In a letter from Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, he stated that Center findings have been employed in securing support for Local Law 37, putting New York at the forefront of safer pest control methods in the United States.

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