Center Research Overview

The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (the Center) strives to create a world in which every child has a healthy start. Grounding our work in extensive research and close partnerships with community organizations, we are ambassadors of preventive measures to protect children from environmental threats.

The Center was founded in 1998 when an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Columbia University, led by Dr. Frederica Perera, was awarded the distinct status of becoming one of eight “Centers for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention” by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Center conducts community-based research in the United States and overseas to study the health effects of prenatal and early postnatal exposures to common urban pollutants. Environmental exposures we study include:

  • Lead, mercury, mold, pest allergens, and secondhand smoke
  • Bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, most commonly found in plastics
  • Chlorpyrifos, a former household and current agricultural pesticide
  • Pyrethroids, a replacement insecticide used after Chlorpyrifos was banned from residential use
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a flame-retardant compound used in textiles, electronics, and office and home furnishings
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a byproduct of the combustion of fossil fuel and other organic material

We analyze data to determine if higher levels of pollutants, combined with other susceptibility factors, can increase children’s risk of asthma, mental and physical delay, attention and behavioral disorders, chromosomal abnormalities and genetic damage, and obesity and metabolic disorders.

Visit our research page and explore the Center’s groundbreaking research in children’s environmental health.

The Center is unique in using a combination of methods to further understand how early life exposures to environmental pollutants, material and nutritional deficiencies, maternal distress during pregnancy, and interactions with certain genetic compositions increase children’s risk of disease.

Types of research have included molecular epidemiologic cohort studies, laboratory-based experiments, and community intervention projects. Research methods include personal and home air monitors to measure pollutant levels, MRI technologies, biological sampling using biomarkers of prenatal and postnatal exposure, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to model community effects of toxicants on children’s health.

We collaborate closely with our community partners to design scientific research around significant environmental health issues and to inform the general public on environmental health risks. This collaboration between research and community organizations has received praised for its effectiveness and cited as a best practice to be replicated at other research institutions.

Dr. Frederica Perera, internationally recognized for pioneering the field of molecular epidemiology, leads a team of laboratory-based and clinical research experts specializing in asthma, pediatric health, pediatric oncology, environmental exposure assessment, perinatal epidemiology, pediatric oncology, biostatistics, community research, and GIS modeling, who are studying the effects of early-life exposures to identify those most harmful and in need of regulation.

Community Partners
A key component of our community outreach and research translation has been attributed to maintaining a highly successful partnership with our lead community partner, We Act for Environmental Justice (WE ACT). WE ACT strives to facilitate community participation through the creation of fair environmental health policies and practices, with a particular focus on Northern Manhattan. WE ACT has disseminated our published findings to policy-makers in support of their advocacy work.

Furthermore, the Center facilitates the activities of the Community Advisory and Stakeholder Board (CASB). Comprised of WE ACT and other community and non-profit groups in Northern Manhattan, the South Bronx, and New York City, the CASB identifies the best methods to deliver key environmental health messages to the community, clinicians, and other healthcare professionals. CASB also provides input into the design and implementation of research.

Global Scope
The Center conducts major studies on children’s environmental health in the United States, Europe, and Asia. In New York City, studies are conducted in low-income neighborhoods in northern Manhattan and the South Bronx that are disproportionately burdened by pollution, as well as near the World Trade Center site. The Center also conducts studies in Krakow, Poland and in Tongliang and Taiyuan in China where coal burning is prevalent.

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