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The National Children's Study: Genes, Environment and Great Stories in your Backyard

The National Children's Study: Genes, Environment and Great Stories in your Backyard

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

This may be the biggest children's study you've barely heard of: a massive, $2.7 billion examination of 100,000 American children's health and development. Did I mention it's supposed to last 25 years?

The National Children's Study was launched by an act of Congress in 2000 to tease out the effects of environments both physical and psychological on children's health. More than a decade later, it's finally getting underway, potentially yielding some great stories in the process. Ultimately, 105 sites around the country will recruit pregnant or soon-to-be pregnant women to participate.

"I can't tell you how excited I am about this," James Swanson, a University of California-Irvine developmental psychologist who is helping lead the study, told California Endowment Health Journalism Fellows in Pasadena this week as he laid out the study's enormous scope. "We can look at the interaction of genes and environment in a very unique way to understand how they affect children's health." Data from the study, he said, could help in the prevention of asthma, autism, obesity and cancer among other conditions.

If your community is home to an early recruitment site (click here for a list of 37 sites nationwide, including Orange County, Calif.), get to know staff at the site. See if you can ride along as recruitment workers fan out to randomly selected homes to recruit women.

Study researchers hope to be at the births of these women's children to collect tissue samples and data – can you be there too? Can you talk to study participants? Can you tag along as researchers take water and dust samples and measure noise levels in participating families' homes? Can you interview participants? (Swanson says yes.) Why would they sign up for so many years of testing and poking and prodding? What do they hope to gain for themselves and their children?

Outside individual homes, what environmental factors might researchers be looking at in your community? Is there a power plant? A Superfund site? A factory?

What are the ethical issues involved in this research? Women who have no health insurance won't be offered prenatal care just for participating in the study, although they will get ultrasounds and be informed if there's a serious problem with their pregnancies.

So many questions, so many interesting stories with a truly local angle. There hasn't yet been a lot of significant media coverage of the National Children's Study (this San Diego Union Tribune story is an exception), but more stories are bound to emerge soon. Will yours be among them?

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