Protecting Children's Health

A New Project is Underway to Draw the Connections between Toxins and Children's Health

Dr. Philip Landrigan is leading a new project at Mt. Sinai that will look at the long-term effects of toxins on children"s health and development.

The relationship between children's health and environmental toxins is finally getting the long-term look it deserves. A recent fundraiser at the Greenwich Country Club in Connecticut featured Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai Children's Environmental Health Center, who despite the celebrities in attendance (including Laurie David and Mary Richardson Kennedy) took to the podium with all the fanfare of a rock star. In health circles, he is. By connecting lead exposure with lowered IQ in children, Landrigan's work helped end lead components in gasoline and paint—and resulted in an 88% drop in lead levels in American kids by 2005. Now Landrigan is behind The Autism and Learning Disabilities Discovery and Prevention Project just launched at Mt. Sinai which will take a comprehensive look at how environmental toxins affect children's health up to adulthood. "If there are a few chemicals we can prove cause autism," said Landrigan, "it opens the possibility that there are others."

He listed some of the known chemical causes of autism—including Thalidomide (used during the "50s and "60s to combat morning sickness), Misoprostol (used to induce labor) and Valproic acid (an anticonvulsant, mood-stabilizing drug). As part of their new project, the Mt. Sinai team will be building a "biobank," so that babies" cord blood—collected with permission at the hospital—will be analyzed for some 200 chemicals of concern, and will undergo genetic and epigenetic analyses.

The project is a perfect complement to the National Children's Study already underway across the U.S. That study—with a consortium of partners that includes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—was launched in January 2010 and has set out to enroll 100,000 pregnant women in 105 counties and track the babies" development until age 21. They're collecting hair, blood and urine samples from pregnant women, testing household dust, water and carpeting and analyzing the samples for chemicals, for genetic makeup and for infections.

It's a mammoth undertaking, but one that researchers hope can begin to answer questions about multiple chemical impacts happening across a lifetime of exposure, rather than examining—and banning—such chemicals one by one.

"Banning chemicals can work," Dr. Landrigan told the well-heeled attendees at the fundraiser (which netted $300,000 for his center), "but after they're already in widespread use…it's hugely disruptive." What would work better, he said, was a complete overhaul—mandated testing of all old and new chemicals as has been proposed in New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg's bill, The Kid-Safe Chemical Act. It's a bill, that, according to Sen. Lautenberg's website: "would ensure for the first time that all the chemicals used in baby bottles, children's toys and other products are proven to be safe before they are put on the market." Added Dr. Landrigan: "New science is needed, too."

RESOURCES: The National Children's Study; Mt. Sinai Children's Environmental Health Center

BRITA BELLI is editor of E.