Starting this week, pregnant women in Duplin County, N.C., and Queens, N.Y., will be getting letters and phone calls asking them to be part of the National Children's Study. This first-ever effort, 10 years in the making, will follow thousands of children from the womb to age 20, with the goal of finding the causes of major health problems like asthma, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, low birth weight, birth defects, and premature birth. In the months and years to come, 103 more areas of the country will be included in this first large-scale, long-term study to investigate environmental factors like pollution and pesticides as possible causes.
"We'll be able to amass information on the environmental causes of these diseases within three to five years," says Philip Landrigan, a principal investigator for the study, based at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He pioneered research on the health effects of air pollution on children, proving in the 1970s that children could suffer IQ loss and other serious damage from exposure to low levels of lead previously thought safe.
Environmental factors clearly play a role in asthma and are suspected in autism. This month, researchers at the University of California-Davis reported in Epidemiology that autism rates in California have increased from 6.2 of every 10,000 children born in 1990 to 42.5 in 2001, an increase that couldn't be explained by better diagnosis or by migration. In the past few years, scientists have focused largely on finding genetic causes of autism, but genes don't change that much in 11 years. The National Children's Study could finally shed some light on the environmental causes of autism.
Families can't just call up and volunteer for the National Children's Study, alas; the study leaders are picking potential participants to maintain an appropriately diverse mix. But if you do get the call, here's what to expect. Pregnant moms who sign up will have researchers come to their home to collect blood and urine samples and also gather dust and water samples. Then there will be monthly phone calls, as well as exams of the baby after she or he is born. Figure on about 38 hours of time per family in the first two years, according to study director Peter Scheidt. After that, the researchers will check in with children and families every three years or so, for a total of 12 face-to-face visits over 21 years. Scheidt says he would love to follow the tens of thousands of participating children on into adulthood, to see how their experiences in childhood affect their health throughout life. But for now, the federally funded study is focused on childhood. (Here's a map of the 105 National Children's Study locations nationwide.)
Famous longitudinal studies of adults, such as the Framingham Heart Study, have transformed our understanding of the causes of heart disease and other major killers. Here's hoping that this new effort, the result of a decade of lobbying by researchers and children's advocates, will finally help reveal the causes of the plagues of modern childhood.
For more on the controversy over autism and vaccine exposure, you can check out my colleague Dr. Bernadine Healy's recent column on autism and vaccine research and my colleague Deborah Kotz's report on vaccine safety.