Children’s Health Problems Stem from ‘A Soup of Exposures’

Research and Evaluation Forum explores effects of environmental stressors on childhood health.

Children's health
An elementary school child enjoys a healthy lunch. (Photo/CDC Public Health Image Library)
May 02, 2016

According to Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, many global health issues can only be understood as problems of both nature and nurture.

“Nothing is just your genes, and nothing is just your environment,” Dr. Birnbaum told an audience Thursday at the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium.

The World Health Organization has found that 23 percent of deaths globally are attributable to environmental factors, Dr. Birnbaum said. Populations are particularly vulnerable to environmental stress during transitional periods like fetal development and puberty.

But people may also be made vulnerable by genetic predispositions, which in turn can be caused by chemical exposure—a tight interweaving of genes and environment.

According to NIEHS research, an important window of susceptibility exists even before a child does.

When parents are exposed to certain environmental stressors even well before conception, their child can inherit vulnerabilities predisposing them to a range of ailments including birth defects and cancers.

Such exposure is almost inevitable, Dr. Birnbaum said, and although most research tends to focus on exposure to single factors, the reality of the modern environment is much more complicated.

“We live in a soup of exposures, whether it’s your diet, or the drugs or herbal supplements you take or the pesticides you use around your house,” she said.

Dr. Birnbaum delivered the keynote address at “Advancing Novel Research Methods to Improve Children’s Health,” the fifth in a series of research and evaluation forums hosted by the Office of Industry and Corporate Research within GW’s Office of the Vice President for Research in cooperation with ICF International.

After her address, four fellow panelists joined her onstage to discuss the interplay of genes and environment in children’s health outcomes.

Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, moderated a conversation that also included Jonathan Cohen, technical director of ICF International; Rebecca Clifton, associate research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the GW Biostatistics Center; and Ami Zota, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

The panelists agreed that cross-disciplinary research and cooperation will be necessary to solve pervasive ecological problems.

The field of environmental health research is itself in a crucial stage of development, Dr. Goldman said.

“It’s not just that we’re beginning to understand health and disease,” she said. “We’re beginning to understand who we are as human beings.”