The Case for the CEHC

Around the World, the Rates of Childhood Diseases are Increasing

The physical environment in which American children live, learn and play in has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Children today are at risk of exposure to more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals that are commonly used in millions of consumer products, ranging from foods and food packaging to clothing, building material, cleaning products, cosmetics, toys, and baby bottles. Within that same period:

  • Child asthma rates have nearly tripled over the past three decades. Asthma is now the leading cause of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and school absenteeism.
  • One in 68 children are diagnosed with autism. Neurodevelopmental disorders – dyslexia, mental retardation, and other learning disabilities – now affect 10 to 15% of the four million babies born in the U.S. each year. Another 14% are affected by ADHD.
  • Childhood obesity has tripled over the past 20 years, rising from 5% to 17%. Type II diabetes, previously unknown in children, is now becoming epidemic.
  • Both childhood leukemia and brain cancer have increased in incidence by about 40% since 1970. Childhood cancer has increased by over 50% and is being diagnosed at younger ages. 13% of girls have reached the onset of puberty by age seven, putting them at greater risk for lifelong breast cancer.

The Role of the Environment

There is a strong and growing body of evidence that links chemical exposures increasing rates of these diseases. Children are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals. Their developmental processes are easily disrupted, their ability to excrete toxic chemicals is significantly lower than adults, and their bodies are smaller and absorb more chemicals. During these unique “windows of early vulnerability,” which occur during the nine months of pregnancy and early childhood, exposures to even low levels of toxic chemicals can produce harmful effects – many of which do not occur until later in life.

Childhood Diseases Not Only Take a Personal Toll on Our Families; They Also Place a Tremendous Economic Strain on Our Country

In 2008, our country spent $76.6 billion on preventable children’s diseases induced by the environment – 3.5% of annual healthcare costs. According to the CDC, almost half of Americans are suffering from at least one preventable chronic disease – many of which are rooted in childhood exposures. As a result, we spend more per capita than any other nation on healthcare, including $1.5 trillion on chronic diseases that are known to be preventable. While research has shown that disease prevention is one of the most cost-effective, long term strategies to improve our country’s health, the U.S. still spends more on direct medical care and health insurance than it does on preventive action. Now, more than ever, we need to focus on the causes of chronic disease – not merely deal with the consequences.

Year in Numbers

The Pilot Research Project Program

Since its initiation in 2008, the Pilot Project Research Program within the Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC) has awarded seed grants through a rigorously peer reviewed competitive process to encourage new directions and innovative research in children’s environmental health across the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The goal is to provide researchers with sufficient funding to generate preliminary results or proof-of-concept data, poising them to apply for major grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government and philanthropic sources.

The Pilot Project Research Program represents a venture capital approach to catalyzing biomedical research. It enables CEHC to move quickly to fill a critical gap in current research funding. Both the NIH and other sources of research funding require that investigators generate preliminary results and present proof-of-concept data before they apply for major research support. The Pilot Project Research Program enables our researchers to move swiftly to develop data that meet this requirement. Thus, they are positioned to develop strong and highly competitive funding proposals.

Over the years, CEHC researchers have been awarded over one million dollars in pilot project grants ranging in size from $25,000 to $70,000 and in 2016 alone totaling $191,229.  The studies have explored environmental causes of a number of pediatric diseases including asthma/allergies, neurodevelopmental disorders (including autism and learning disabilities), obesity, diabetes and childhood cancer.

Our department has been able to continue to award pilot projects to faculty and postdocs through grant funding from NIH and NIEHS awards and charitable donations.