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US environment agency cuts funding for kids’ health studies

The Environmental Protection Agency's decision leaves fate of more than a dozen decades-long projects in doubt.

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Children play in a fountain in Battery Park, New York City

Children in New York City are exposed to a wide range of environmental pollutants.Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health has tracked the lives of hundreds of children in New York City since 1998. Scientists have collected samples of blood, urine and even the air in children’s homes, starting when their subjects were in the womb, to tease out the health effects of chemicals and pollutants. The centre’s findings influenced New York City’s decision in 2018 to phase out diesel buses, and its staff members teach schools and community groups about the harmful chemicals and pollution that kids encounter each day.

Now, the future of the Columbia facility and a dozen like it is in doubt. Their last grants from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has provided half of the centres’ funding for two decades, will expire in July — and the agency has decided that it will not renew its support for the facilities.

The programme’s other government sponsor, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) says that it cannot replace the funding that the EPA has historically provided. Scientists at the children’s centres are increasingly worried that the EPA’s withdrawal will force them to shut down decades-long research projects.

Studies of this length are rare and valuable, because they can reveal associations between environmental exposures early in life and health problems years later. And the mix of threats that kids face changes over time. “Twenty years ago, what we were studying is not the same as what we’re studying today,” says Ruth Etzel, a paediatrician at the EPA who specializes in children’s environmental health. “We have to study children now, in their communities.”

Many environmental-health researchers see the EPA's decision to cut funding for the children’s centres as part of a push by President Donald Trump’s administration to undermine science at the agency, which is responsible for the safety of US air and water. “It works out perfectly for industry,” says Tracey Woodruff, who runs the children’s centre at the University of California, San Francisco. When weighing the harms of a chemical against its benefits, she says, “if EPA doesn’t know, it counts for zero”.

The EPA did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its plans for the children’s centres, or on its work on children’s environmental health more generally.

Hidden links

The 13 facilities supported by the EPA and the NIEHS are scattered in cities across the country and employ hundreds of researchers in disciplines such as toxicology, genetics and brain development. Their ability to follow people from before birth to adulthood has revealed surprising connections between common chemicals and health.

Research by the Columbia centre suggests that the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos harms the development of children’s brains. Chlorpyrifos is used to treat a broad array of food crops, and until 2001, it was legal in the United States for use indoors against insects such as cockroaches. In 2012, Columbia scientists reported1 that children who were exposed to high levels of the pesticide in the womb had lower IQs and altered brain structure compared to those with low exposure.

Last year, Hawaii became the first US state to ban agricultural use of chlorpyrifos — and cited the Columbia research. The centre’s work is also at the heart of an ongoing lawsuit brought by environmental groups seeking to force the EPA to ban all uses of the pesticide.

“They’re just jaw-dropping studies,” says Lisa Satterwhite, a molecular geneticist with the children’s centre at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “We could not have anticipated there would be this built-in natural experiment.”

Each of the facilities also works with local groups to educate communities about the findings of their studies, many of which address environmental harms that disproportionately affect people in low-income neighbourhoods.

Source: NIEHS

Researchers with the children’s centre at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, regularly visit students at Overlea High School, just a few kilometres away. During their visits, scientists and physicians talk about how pollution and smoking contribute to asthma — which is common in the area — and how the teenagers can keep their lungs healthy. Robert Jackson, a health-science teacher at Overlea, says that his pupils find the lessons useful, in part because many don’t have regular access to medical care.

Cutting funding for the children’s centres could hurt the relationships that researchers have built with their neighbours, says Aparna Bole, a paediatrician at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. “I cannot think of an equivalent network that could do the same work,” she says.

Slow fade

The first hints of trouble for the children’s centres emerged last year. The centres’ grants are typically renewed every five years, and the latest round was set to end in 2018 and 2019. As months passed without any update from the EPA and the NIEHS about the programme’s future, researchers began to worry.

Kimberly Gray, who manages the NIEHS’s contribution to the centres, says that her agency cannot afford to support them on its own without making significant changes to the programme.

Instead, she says, the NIEHS is trying to maximize the research that the centres have already completed by supporting their community outreach, and looking for ways to keep their study cohorts going. Gray is still meeting with EPA employees who manage the agency’s research programmes on child health. “They’re supportive of continuing our efforts,” she says.

Some scientists see broader signs that the EPA is de-emphasizing studies of kids’ health. Last year, the agency reassigned Gray’s EPA counterpart, Nica Louie, who managed its work with the children’s centres. Gray and environmental-health researchers say that the loss of Louie’s institutional knowledge has made their work harder.

And last September, the EPA put Etzel — the leader of its Office of Children’s Health Protection, which advises agency leaders on kids’ special health needs — on administrative leave but told her that she would not face disciplinary action. Etzel, who returned to the agency in a different role in March, says that the EPA never told her why it suspended her.

The agency, which has not replaced Etzel, did not respond to Nature’s questions about her suspension or Louie’s reassignment. Nor did Louie reply to requests for comment.

Linda McCauley, an environmental-health researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who leads the children’s centre there, thinks that the EPA’s personnel moves were designed to benefit the chemical industry, by stymieing research that could suggest the need for new or tougher regulations. “That’s how this administration is working,” she says. “They can be effective by slowing things down to a crawl.”

The last of the children’s centres’ long-term grants from the EPA and the NIEHS are set to expire in July, and the facilities have until July 2020 to spend the remainder of the money. The additional funding that the NIEHS has scraped together will allow some of the centres to perform outreach, allow graduate students to finish dissertations and wind down many of their other activities. The NIEHS says that the centres are also eligible to compete for funding against other long-term epidemiological studies of all types.

McCauley is spending her remaining funds on community outreach. Grants from the US National Institutes of Health — the NIEHS’s parent — or other funders could help her continue to do research, but the outreach programme at her centre has no other source of financial support. “All these community stakeholders have been such critical partners for this work nationally and there’s no funding,” she says. “They’re the ones being hurt the most.”

Nature 569, 315-317 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01491-1

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 22 May 2019: This story incorrectly implied that Ruth Etzel was still on leave from the EPA in May; in fact she returned, in a new role, in March. This has been corrected.

References

  1. 1.

    Rauh, V. A. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 109, 7871-7876 (2012).

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