Experts call for interdisciplinary study of childhood exposure to environmental contaminants

August 18, 2016

The baby boy biting brown beads on a bed

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ANN ARBOR—The recent public health crisis in Flint, Mich., underscores a need for scientists to better understand the relationship between environmental contaminants and child development, say researchers at The University of Michigan and their collaborators.

In a paper published in July in the journal Childhood Development Perspectives, scientists from U-M’s Institute for Social Research (ISR) and School of Public Health, along with Wayne State University in Detroit, encourage developmental researchers to examine how exposures to environmental contaminants affect behavior problems, achievement, cognitive development and attention in children. The best way to do this, say the study authors, is to engage with outside fields, such as toxicology and environmental health.

“No one discipline has the expertise to understand all the issues,” says co-author Pamela Davis-Kean, a research professor at ISR’s Population, Neurodevelopment and Genetics Program and a psychology professor. “Demographers study the socioeconomic and geographical issues, developmental psychologists look at child cognition and behavior, public health examines what exposures to toxicants do to biology, and public policy examines policies that lead to adverse exposure, in Flint, for example. Thus, interdisciplinary collaborations are needed to bring all the expertise together to understand the pathway from exposure to biology to behavior.”

The article’s lead author, Christopher Trentacosta, an associate professor of psychology at Wayne State University, used an ecological systems approach to outline the many ways children may be exposed to contaminants, including heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, as well as chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls and bisphenol A (BPA). Factors can range from the geographic location of their neighborhood to local laws and policies, as evidenced by the situation in Flint.

The paper further discusses mechanisms and examples to help spur additional research. For example, developmental markers could be strengthened through a better grasp of how contaminants affect development, building off of studies linking BPA with obesity.

“We already know from administrative data sets, like those from EPA, where there are high amounts of exposure,” Davis-Kean says. “We also have national studies that we can connect to those areas and see if these exposures, controlling for other important factors, may be related to behavioral and cognitive outcomes.”

The authors close with four recommendations for creating more comprehensive research in this area. Suggestions include publishing a special section on contaminant exposure in a developmental science journal; organizing interdisciplinary meetings and symposiums; increased training on research methods; and developing cross-disciplinary pre- and postdoctoral training programs at leading universities.

Such efforts, researchers hope, could improve responses to future public health emergencies involving contaminants and children.

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By Kory Zhao

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