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Dartmouth-led team gets $8 million grant to research arsenic in children

The Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center at Dartmouth and its partner universities have received an $8 million grant to expand their research into arsenic toxicity in children and pregnant women.

The five-year grant is jointly funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (part of the National Institutes of Health) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dartmouth leads the multidisciplinary effort in collaboration with Stanford University, Harvard Medical School and the University of Miami. About 15 percent of the grant will support the work of these collaborators. Center members specialize in environmental, nutritional and molecular epidemiology, public health, pediatrics, ecology, nutrition, bioinformatics, biomedical informatics, trace element analysis and other fields.

"With the expansion of the center, we can deepen our understanding of environmental exposure to common contaminants such as arsenic during fetal development and childhood and the impact these exposures have on childhood immunity, growth and neurobehavioral development," says Professor Margaret Karagas, director of the Center and a professor at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine.

The Center builds on a Dartmouth study begun in 2009 of pregnant New Hampshire women, whose private wells may contain elevated arsenic levels. The long-term health of their children will be evaluated. The Center's research will focus on three projects:

  • Investigating the effects of arsenic exposure on mothers and infants and their susceptibility to allergies and infection.
  • Quantifying arsenic exposure through water and food during infancy and early childhood and determining its impact on growth and neurobehavioral development.
  • Examining epigenetic and gene expression changes in the placenta in relation to arsenic exposure and health effects.

The center, in its pilot phase, discovered that certain foods, including rice and rice products, contribute to arsenic exposure in children, and it recently reported findings of increased infection risk in children (Environmental Research, 2013) and changes in DNA in umbilical cord blood (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2013) and placental tissue, relating to low birth weight (Environmental Health, 2013), associated with in utero arsenic exposure. The Center also recently reported that diet alone can be a significant source of arsenic exposure regardless of arsenic concentrations in drinking and cooking water.

Karagas says that the center's mission is to identify and address key emerging issues related to health impacts of early life environmental exposures. "There is growing research connecting exposure early in life to a number of prevalent and life threatening diseases for children," she says. "Moreover, early life exposures and their effects also appear to extend beyond childhood."

Evidence suggests that environmental exposure may affect the development of the immune system, and in turn infant risk of emerging diseases such as allergies and asthma, she says. Diseases known or suspected to be caused by or aggravated by arsenic in drinking water include various cancers as well as cardiovascular disease.

"Additionally, risk of obesity, which has greatly increased in prevalence in both children and adults, is influenced by factors occurring early in life," says Karagas. "Therefore, if environmental contaminants increase early life growth, they will heighten risk for obesity which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancer."


Contact: John Cramer
Dartmouth College

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