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The NIEHS/EPA Children’s Centers: 18 Years of Investing in Children’s Health

Published October 5, 2018

Children laugh outsideHow do you measure the value of a healthy child? Just about anyone will tell you it’s impossible. Improving the health of children across every community—wherever they live, learn, and play—is the singular focus of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and EPA Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers.

A unique partnership, the program funds community-based Children’s Centers where teams of researchers investigate the links between the environment and children’s health in ways that directly inform actions that reduce risks and prevent disease.

Over its 18-year history, the partnership has awarded 46 grants totaling more than $300 million to 24 centers through a highly competitive application process. The result has been a unique, collaborative network drawn from a diverse array of experts and practitioners brought together through the common goal of lowering health risks to children.

That knowledge base now serves as a critical foundation for reducing health risks and improving quality of life for children and their families.

“Children’s Centers research has identified the critical role environmental toxicants play in the development of asthma, obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cancer, autism, and other childhood illnesses that may set the trajectory of health throughout adult life,” notes the introduction of NIEHS/EPA Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers Impacts Report, a 2017 report highlighting the contributions to children’s health the program has made since its establishment. The report spells out a host of specific findings made by Children Center research teams, and how those findings have led directly to helping communities better protect children from environmental exposures.  

Collectively, the output of research from the Children’s Centers network has been prolific, including more than 2,500 publications in total, or 140 a year since 1999. Just a few recent examples from the past year include:

  • In April, researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health announced results of a study showing that childhood exposure the flame retardant chemicals declined following phase out. Read more.  
  • Researchers at the Children’s Center at Duke University found that “…banning smoking in public spaces may reduce passive smoke exposure for non-smoking pregnant women.” Results of their study were presented in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
  • A paper in the scientific journal Clinical Epigenetics presents results from researchers at the Children’s Center at Stanford University exploring how exposure to ambient air pollution can impact DNA in ways that contribute to asthma. “Ultimately, this research may be useful in elucidating epigenetic biomarkers of asthma and in developing therapeutic targets by which to prevent or correct epigenetic damage resulting from pollution,” they conclude.

Current Children’s Centers research includes investigations into how the complex interactions of environmental, genetic, epigenetic, social, and cultural factors may be linked in ways that influence the development of many of today’s most pressing children’s health concerns, including diseases such as asthma, autism, ADHD, neurodevelopmental deficits, childhood leukemia, diabetes, and obesity.

“By design, the Children’s Centers are not limited to the traditional boundaries of any particular discipline or area of expertise to limit the array of approaches taken to explore and understand the links between children and their environment. This innovative, wide-angle lens approach is what has allowed the program to provide evidence to help protect our children and transform the field of children’s environmental health,” explains Nica Louie, an EPA Project Officer for the program.

By uniting researchers with health practitioners and caregivers, the centers emphasize community engagement and the importance of translating research findings in ways that make them accessible and immediately applicable to protecting children. Thanks to such innovations, the impacts of the NIEHS/EPA Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Centers will continue to improve the health of children well into the future.

Learn more:

NIEHS/EPA Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers