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Kaiser Permanente to Examine Role of Environmental Factors in Childhood Obesity

Kaiser Permanente (No. 1 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list) researchers have received a major new grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how exposures to environmental chemicals during pregnancy may influence the risk of obesity and neurodevelopmental disorders in children.


Twenty percent of U.S. children are now considered obese and 15 percent have developmental impairments in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This research will explore how in-womb exposure to chemicals in the environment affects normal growth and development by changing the metabolism of glucose and thyroid hormones, both of which regulate infant growth and neurodevelopment,” said Assiamira Ferrara, MD, PhD, principal investigator of the new study and associate director of women’s and children’s health at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research.

The new Kaiser Permanente study is part of the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes research program, known as ECHO. It will use existing research study cohort populations around the nation to investigate how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development from conception through early childhood influences the health of children and adolescents. The proposed seven-year study will launch with $3.25 million in initial NIH funding over the first two years, with an estimated total cost of $24 million. The ECHO program encompasses a total of $144 million in NIH grants.

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

Kaiser Permanente investigators will focus on in utero exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals including perfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAs), polybrominated ethers (PBDEs), and organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) which are found in many common household and personal products, plastics and furniture.

“Several of these types of chemicals are persistent in the environment and can be measured in human tissue such as blood and urine,” said Lisa A. Croen, PhD, co-principal investigator and director of Kaiser Permanente’s Autism Research Program.

Researchers will ask women who participated in two existing Kaiser Permanente pregnancy cohorts the Pregnancy and Environment Lifestyle Study (funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and led by Dr. Ferrara) and the Kaiser Permanente Research Bank Pregnancy Cohort (funded by Kaiser Permanente and led by Croen) to join the study, along with their young children.

“The new study would not have been possible without years of previous groundwork at the Division of Research and the resources of the Kaiser Permanente Research Bank, as well as the support of clinicians throughout Kaiser Permanente in Northern California,” said Tracy A. Lieu, MD, MPH, director of the Division of Research.

Dr. Ferrara noted that this research could lead to policy changes to protect children from environmental exposures in the future. “Since the use of environmental chemicals is potentially modifiable, results from the study may help to inform national environmental and public health agencies regarding policies to further regulate the production of these chemicals and inform the public regarding the restriction of their use,” she said.

Concerned about increasing levels of potentially harmful chemicals in the environment, Kaiser Permanente earlier this year advanced its longstanding environmental-stewardship commitment by announcing new and ambitious goals for the year 2025 that include, among other things, aiming to increase its purchase of products and materials that meet environmental standards to 50 percent.

Co-investigators of the study include Stacey Alexeeff, PhD, Lyndsay Ammon Avalos, PhD, MPH, Monique M. Hedderson, PhD, Lawrence H. Kushi, ScD, and Charles P. Quesenberry, PhD, of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research.

About the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research

The Kaiser Permanente Division of Research conducts, publishes and disseminates epidemiologic and health services research to improve the health and medical care of Kaiser Permanente members and society at large. It seeks to understand the determinants of illness and well-being, and to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of health care. Currently, DOR’s 550-plus staff is working on more than 250 epidemiological and health services research projects. For more information, visit www.dor.kaiser.org or follow @KPDOR.

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