In the last 30 years, the overall health of children in the United States has been a subject of concern and debate.

Rates for obesity, autism, asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and allergies have doubled or tripled.

Lots of reasons, including radical changes in physical activities and diet, better detection and diagnosis, have been proffered as explanations for the causes, but one is often danced around and even dodged: environmental factors.

It’s not been lost on a couple of academicians at the Medical University of South Carolina: obstetrician and researcher Dr. Roger Newman and public health sciences co-founder Dr. John Vena.

“There’s an obesity epidemic, there’s an epidemic of asthma, there’s an epidemic of disorders like autism and attention deficit disorder,” says Dr. Roger Newman, who works as a researcher and obstetrician at MUSC Health. “These aren’t just inherited. Something’s happening to our children in our environment.”

Newman and Vena are part of a much larger effort spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health to explore environmental factors on childhood development over the next seven years.

The initiative is called the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes Program, or ECHO. Earlier this fall, the NIH committed $157 million in awards to 35 institutions, including MUSC, that are involved in it.

For the first two years combined, MUSC’s portion has the potential to be about $9.6 million, making it potentially the largest translational study, in financial terms, for the institution, according to Vena.

MUSC’s involvement is largely due to building on existing research, the “National Fetal Growth Study,” led by Newman, of nearly 2,400 racially, ethnically and geographically diverse, otherwise healthy, mothers early in pregnancy.

From 2009 to 2013, researchers followed them for the study, monitoring and documenting the growth of the fetus, exposures, nutritional assessments and other factors at 10 clinical centers throughout the U.S.

Vena adds, “Now we’ll be able to bring those children in for health and wellness assessments and see how they’ve done. The children are now 3 to 6 years old. We will continue to monitor their health for seven years, so up through early adolescence.”

The new study will be “Exposure Contributors to Child Health Originating from National Fetal Growth Study.”

The MUSC and Columbia University-led group has set three key goals. The researchers will:

  • Look at the mothers’ environments during pregnancy, including their exposure to persistent environmental pollutants and stress, along with what they ate and drank. They’ll explore how those factors may be linked to the children’s metabolic health and neurobehavioral outcomes.
  • Evaluate associations between fetal development and the later development of childhood obesity and neurobehavioral abnormalities. They’ll look for maternal and fetal factors that may modify these associations.
  • Come up with new ways to predict the risk of childhood obesity and neurobehavioral symptoms. They’ll base this on fetal development trajectories and exposures in the uterus.

Vena said the goal of ECHO is to gain a better understanding of environmental influences at each life stage.

“The main outcomes we’re looking at are obesity, endocrine disruption, insulin resistance, that type of thing. Also in neurodevelopment, conditions such as attention deficit disorder, autism, all of that will be assessed.”

But what excites the researchers even more is being part of the larger collaboration of ECHO.

“What’s really cool is that our study will be part of this bigger effort,” says Vena, of the program’s overall study of 50,000 children.

“Our study, we think, is one of the most important studies that will lead the way to developing a good understanding of how the mother’s experiences during pregnancy, including stress and exposure to environmental toxins, are related to the health of the baby at birth. Also through infancy through adolescence.

On Wednesday, Vena heads to an organizational meeting of all the participating centers.

The ECHO program will investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development, from conception through early childhood, influences the health of children and adolescents.

ECHO will support other detailed and long-running studies using existing study populations to investigate environmental exposures, including physical, chemical, biological, social, behavioral, natural and built environments, on child health and development.

The studies will focus on four key pediatric outcomes that have a high public health impact: obesity, upper and lower airway issues, neurodevelopment and outcomes in pre-, peri- and postnatal stages.

“Every baby should have the best opportunity to remain healthy and thrive throughout childhood,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, at the announcement of the award. “ECHO will help us better understand the factors that contribute to optimal health in children.”

Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.