Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana says there are thousands of chemicals used in products that are consumed by the public, but there is little information about how most of them impact human health.

Babies and children are exposed to chemicals when they play, eat and go outside, and a $157 million new initiative launched by the National Institutes of Health aims to create a comprehensive understanding of how chemicals and environmental factors like air pollution impact childhood development.

Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatric environmental health researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, was selected as one of the principle investigators whose focus is chemical exposures.

“We have very little data about how most chemicals impact fetal and childhood development,” Sathyanarayana said. “This national study will give us a clearer understanding of how chemical exposures impact child health and what researchers, policymakers and parents should be most concerned about.”

Many chemicals, little data on effects

There are thousands of chemicals used in products that are consumed by the public, and Sathyanarayana says there is little information about how most of them impact human health.

The seven-year NIH initiative, called the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO), will look at four areas: birth outcomes, obesity, air pollution and neurodevelopment. Sathyanarayana’s research is focused on synthetic chemicals, or phthalates, which are the chemicals commonly found in plastics, foods, personal care products and building materials.

The researchers will study how these chemicals may impact chronic health conditions like obesity, asthma and neurodevelopment over a long period of time.

“This new initiative is broad enough that it allows us to study the impact of these chemicals prenatally when a woman is still pregnant and also when the baby is born,” Sathyanarayana said. “We’ll also be tracking that baby into early childhood to understand how these chemical and environmental exposures have affected that child over time.”

Bringing together experts to paint a clear picture

The new funding will create the infrastructure to support multiple long-term studies among existing study cohorts of mothers and their children.

The study will combine three cohorts: The Infant Development and the Environment Study; the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth based at Seattle Children’s Hospital; and the Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood study to examine stress, air pollution, and phthalate exposure in pregnancy and how they impact brain and lung development.

Sathyanarayana, an associate professor at the University of Washington, will also examine how the placenta plays a role between mom’s exposure and child outcomes by looking at placental genetic markers.

“This new initiative will help us determine if and how chemical and environmental exposures are associated with conditions like ADHD, autism and asthma,” she said. “The data we collect will be a valuable source of information on how these exposures influence development and common childhood conditions from conception to early childhood.”