Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are working on an unprecedented undertaking: the largest, most comprehensive long-term study of the health of children, beginning even before they are born. Authorized by Congress in 2000, the National Children’s Study
began last January, with several hundred participants so far. By December 2009, 510 women were enrolled and 83 babies were born in the first seven locations, including Orange County in California, and Salt Lake County in Utah. The study aims to enroll 100,000 pregnant women in 105 counties and monitor their babies until they turn 21.
The overall purpose of this ambitious undertaking is to examine how environment, genes and other factors affect children’s health, tackling questions subject to heated debate and misinformation. Does pesticide exposure, for example, cause asthma? Do particular toxins or genetic mutations lead to autism?
Study participation requires more than just a simple questionnaire or blood test. Specimens include blood, urine, hair, vaginal fluid, breast milk, and saliva from pregnant women, babies and fathers; dust from women’s bedsheets; tap water; and particles on carpets and baseboards. This information and data is analyzed for chemicals, metals, genes and infections. Pregnant women are also asked about everything from possible drug use to depression. At birth, specimen collectors will capture everything from the baby's placenta to her first feces for scientific posterity.
As children grow, researchers will continue to collect specimens and cross-reference information about their medical conditions, behavioral development and school performance.
The potential for medical advancement is certainly obvious. If successful, the National Children’s Study will be one of the richest research efforts geared towards studying children’s health and development. And experts believe the results will form the basis of child health guidance, interventions, and policy for generations to come.