Tobacco smoke, allergens, drug abuse, chemical toxins—while it’s not exactly news they’re bad for us, there’s little precise understanding of how early exposure to such environmental hazards affects children’s long-term health and development.

Researchers from the University of Maryland and other institutions hope to change that through a sweeping national study overseen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The broad goal of the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program is to assess how physical, chemical, biological, social and behavioral exposures impact child development. Through a $17.1 million NIH grant to the Avera Research Institute’s Center for Pediatric and Community Research in South Dakota, which includes Distinguished University Professor Nathan Fox in UMD’s College of Education, researchers will examine environmental exposures and development from the prenatal period through childhood and adolescence.

In South Dakota, Fox’s research team, which has deep expertise in brain assessment techniques, is helping to determine how environmental exposures affect executive functions and brain functioning in early and middle childhood. Fox was awarded $650,000 for his portion of the study.

“Everyone is vulnerable to environmental exposures, but prenatal exposure and immediate postnatal exposure affect the developing brain in a most significant way,” Fox said. “Brain architecture is built over time. Skill begets skill … Exposure to toxins can cause perturbations in brain wiring that can have long lasting effects.”

The ECHO program brings together existing research projects that track cohorts of infants and children as well as their health outcomes, and incorporates those projects into an initiative that will include more than 50,000 children from diverse backgrounds across the United States. The South Dakota-based research project is one of 31 grantees awarded funds by the NIH for this stage of the ECHO program, which follows a two-year planning period, during which experts developed best practices for the program.

Among other things, researchers will examine how environmental exposures like air pollution and substance abuse during fetal development alter child development, including rates of asthma and learning disabilities.

“Understanding how environmental influences affect child development is essential knowledge and holds important implications for health and policy interventions,” said College of Education Dean Jennifer King Rice.

“As we develop more concrete scientific information on the links between early exposures and developmental consequences in children, hopefully it will inform policies and the development and timing of evidence-based interventions,” Fox said.