Monday, October 29, 2001
Four new children's environmental health research centers that
study childhood autism and such behavioral problems
as attention deficit disorder received a funding boost
last week from the federal government for research on
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
(NIEHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency jointly
announced Thursday that the centers will each be funded
at $5 million spread over five years. The new financial
commitment to the centers is part of the agencies' plan
to address children's environmental health issues.
"These centers will help us understand whether environmental
factors play a role in the progress of autism and other
childhood disorders and illnesses," Health and Human
Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said. "Ultimately
the research conducted at these centers will allow us
to better target our health and prevention efforts in
order to do the most to improve the lives of America's
Two of the centers -- at the University of California
at Davis and at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
-- will study environmental factors that may be related
There has been speculation among parents and health
professionals that the exposure of unborn and newborn
infants to various metals or chemicals or even vaccines
may trigger autism, which, at its most severe, is a
withdrawn state in which children do not interact with
their surroundings and other people.
At the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, researchers
will seek to determine the possible influence of mercury,
lead and valproic acid, a drug commonly used to control
seizures, on autism, learning disabilities and regression.
Magnetic resonance imaging will be used to see if children
with higher exposures to environmental poisons have
different patterns of brain growth and development.
A center at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana
will assess the impact of exposure to mercury and PCBs
among two groups of Asian-Americans in Wisconsin, whose
diets are heavy in fish from the Great Lakes.
The work will expand a longstanding research partnership
with nearby Hmong and Laotian people who migrated from
Laos to the United States after the Vietnam War. Because
they have a traditional diet heavy in fish and now live
along the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, they have consumed
PCBs and mercury in Great Lakes fish. The center will
study the impact of these contaminants on the motor,
sensory and mental development of their children.
The fourth center, at Children's Hospital of Cincinnati,
Ohio, will work with community participants to assess
the impact of reducing pollutants in the home and neighborhood
on children's hearing, behavior and test scores. The
Cincinnati program will test the idea that keeping children's
lead levels very low will permit them to score higher
on IQ and other tests, and will result in less hearing
loss and fewer behavioral problems at age three.
A second research program will test whether children's
developmental problems can be linked to their exposures,
while in the womb and as newborns, to pesticides, environmental
tobacco smoke and lead.
Announcing the new center grants at Children's Hospital
of Cincinnati, NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D.,
said, "We all witness the miraculous development of
newborns and young children as they undergo great physical
and mental changes in just a few years. But sometimes
a child tragically loses, or never attains, his or her
ability to speak or interact socially."
"Other times, a child's development or concentration
is impaired," Dr. Olden said. "We know that in some
cases, lead exposure has been the culprit, so we as
a nation have removed lead from paint and gasoline --
and taken other steps so that kids today are testing
smarter than youngsters a generation ago. But lead is
not the only potential developmental toxin. We want
to see what other environmental substances might trigger
developmental problems so that we can reduce the exposures
and prevent the damage."
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, said, "These new
centers, and the eight already in existence across the
country, will continue to perform and apply research
that can help shed light on the links between the environment
and the health of our children. They can help us take
children's health protection to a new level."