About 1,000 children from Ventura County will be involved in an unprecedented study that monitors their health from before they’re born — before some are even conceived — until they reach the age of 21.
Organizers say the study of about 100,000 children nationwide will help them learn the effects of environmental factors ranging from mold to air pollution on growing childhood health problems like obesity, diabetes, autism and asthma.
“It will show us what our children are exposed to in the environment, what they eat and how to make it safer in our neighborhoods,” said Lois Manning, director of maternal, child and adolescent health for the Ventura County Public Health Department, one of the study’s local organizers.
The county’s role in the federally funded National Children’s Study was announced a year ago, but the $14 million then allocated to UCLA for the project was targeted for Los Angeles County. Another $17.4 million was allocated to the university’s Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities about a month ago. Part of that will be used to fund the survey locally.
Planning is a painstaking process that includes studying birth rates in Ventura County communities and developing partnerships between study organizers and healthcare providers, schools and parents clubs.
Active recruitment of participants in Ventura County won’t begin for about two years. Organizers are not looking for volunteers. Instead, they will seek out participants in a carefully planned but random process designed to protect the integrity of the study and the anonymity of the children.
Most of the women in the study will be in the early stages of pregnancy
. Because researchers also want to study health factors that emerge before a child is conceived, about a quarter of the participants will be women with plans to become pregnant in the next four years. They’ll be found in door-to-door visits in randomly selected communities.
Once families are selected, environmental tests will be conducted of their homes and neighborhoods, with dust, water and air samples taken. There will be ultrasounds of fetuses as well as intricate exams of newborns, including analyses of umbilical cord blood
The exams will continue throughout childhood, allowing researchers to compile more than 21 years of data.
“It will be an incredible thing once it’s all done,” said Dr. Neal Halfon, director of the UCLA healthier children center.
The data will help researchers understand the role chemicals and other environmental influences play not only in physical illnesses but in developmental disorders like autism, Halfon said. The study will wade into the nature vs. nurture debate and try to pinpoint the reach and limits of genetic influences.
It should bring a better understanding of some heart disease and mental health issues that may originate in childhood but only emerge later.
“We need to understand all this,” said Halfon “and if we can, it could have not only dramatic effects on how to shift policies to reduce risks for children, but it could have a dramatic effect on the cost of healthcare.”
Manning said the long-term goal in Ventura County is to plan local strategies to fight diabetes, obesity and other problems.
The challenge, she said, is getting the program launched and finding families willing to commit 21 years of their lives.