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25 years of protecting children

The Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health exposes environmental risks to children

Its experts have studied environmental impacts on children in farmworker families for more than two decades. They’ve investigated the effects of dioxin on the reproductive health of women exposed during an industrial accident in Seveso, Italy. Now, they’re leading the fight against COVID-19 in one of the communities they work with.

The Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH) at UC Berkeley School of Public Health is a world leader in researching how environmental health risks impact pregnant women and their children. CERCH turns 25 this year and is as important as ever.

CERCH’s researchers, a team of public health and environmental health experts, along with academics from other fields, evaluate long-term effects of environmental factors on child health, behavior, and development. To make their research accessible to the public, they translate their findings into sustainable strategies to reduce environment-related childhood disease.

Environmental exposures in the Salinas Valley

Dr. Kim Harley, CERCH’s associate director, said her organization’s biggest accomplishment has been the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study, which launched in 1999.

The CHAMACOS study, led by principal investigator Dr. Brenda Eskenazi, is the longest-running longitudinal birth cohort study of pesticides and other environmental exposures among children in a farmworker community and has included almost 800 children in partnership with local organizations Natividad Medical Center and la Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas. The study has resulted in almost 150 publications.

To launch the study, CERCH enrolled pregnant women living in the Salinas Valley, where thousands of farmworkers live. CERCH researchers have followed these families for almost two decades, measuring things like exposure to pesticides and assessing children’s growth, health, and development, among other markers. Today, more than 600 Salinas Valley children are participating in the study; they will be followed until adulthood.

CERCH has recently secured funding to continue the CHAMACOS study and has shifted focus to children’s neurodevelopment and risk-taking behaviors as the participants move into their late teens and early adulthood.

Dr. Harley said the CHAMACOS study has played a pivotal role in outlawing the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to intellectual disabilities. California banned the compound in 2018. In August of this year, the EPA followed suit.

“When we started this research 20 years ago, nobody knew what the impact of this chemical was on children’s brain development and children’s health,” Dr. Harley said. “Our study was able to show evidence of its impacts on children’s brain development, which was really instrumental in getting that pesticide banned.”

CHAMACOS has also provided information on the effects of numerous other chemicals, such as those found in furniture, plastics, and cosmetics, on multiple aspects of health, including fertility, birth outcomes, timing of puberty, obesity and metabolic syndrome, and epigenetic changes.

From Richmond to South Africa

In addition to the CHAMACOS study, CERCH has studied diesel exhaust exposure in communities along the Interstate 80–880 corridor in the East Bay and air quality in Richmond. Globally, CERCH’s work stretches to Italy and South Africa.

Throughout their work, CERCH has aimed to maintain a community mindset, consciously involving community members. Dr. Harley said it’s all part of CERCH’s status as a community-based participatory research program.

(Community-based participatory research  is a collaborative approach to research that equitably involves all partners’ perspectives and inputs. Berkeley Public Health Professor Emerita Meredith Minkler was one of the approach’s pioneers and is editor of the just-released book Community Organizing and Community Building for Health and Social Equity.)

“Since the very beginning, we’ve worked with community members to help drive our research agenda and make sure we know what’s important to the communities we’re involved in,” Dr. Harley said. “We don’t want to be just researchers coming in and telling them what they need, but asking the community what they think and what they need.”

CERCH’s community focus came in especially handy during the Spring of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Dr. Harley said. As coronavirus began spreading throughout the farmworker community, CERCH researchers were able to use their connections with the agricultural industry, the Farm Bureau, and other community leaders—many of those relationships built through the CHAMACOS study—to get farmworkers masks, PPE and other essential supplies. A vaccination program has since grown out of those efforts.

“This sort of natural coalition grew out of our advisory board and came together to help prevent COVID-19 infection in farmworkers,” Dr. Harley said. “I don’t know how well they would have known each other if they weren’t sitting on our advisory boards. I’m just so glad we were able to do this work and save lives.”