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Environmental toxics linked to childhood behavior problems


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 environmental toxins.

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 children."

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 to autism.

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and newborn infants to various metals or chemicals or even vaccines may trigger autism, which, at its most severe, is a withdrawn state in which children do not interact with their surroundings and other people.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."

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