Right now, there are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market, lurking in everything from food to makeup to plastic containers. Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana is unraveling how many of these chemicals potentially harm kids – starting with how they affect babies before they’re born.
“A lot of the information about chemicals is really scary, especially to pregnant moms,” she says. “My goal is to identify how those chemicals impact children’s health and development, and to help families find practical ways to reduce their exposure.”
Sathyanarayana, a principal investigator at Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, is the clinical director and site principal investigator for the Infant Development and Environment Study (TIDES), which investigates whether a pregnant woman’s exposure to common chemicals influences a child’s development. More specifically, the study zeroes in on the impact of phthalates – chemicals that make plastics soft and pliable, and are commonly used in fragrances. Phthalates have been shown to alter hormone concentrations and have a variety of health effects, including limiting the fertility of adult men, but little is known about how they affect children.
For TIDES, Sathyanarayana and her colleagues start by monitoring phthalate levels in pregnant women in four U.S. cities. When the women give birth, the researchers take key measurements of the babies’ genital areas. If these measurements fall outside the normal range, it could indicate that phthalate exposure affected reproductive development. Sathyanarayana’s team hopes to follow the children until adulthood.
“This will help us understand the full scope of phthalates’ impact, and improve the advice we give to patients and families,” she says.
Another one of her studies looks at whether newborns exposed to phthalates in the intensive care unit, where large amounts of intravenous tubing and other plastic products are used, end up with altered hormone levels.
Sathyanarayana is constantly seeking ways to translate research into policies that improve children’s lives, and to bridge the gap between research and patient care. In 2008, she served on the Washington State Governor’s Panel to implement the Children’s Safe Products Act, which included regulations to make toys safer. And she is currently co-chair of the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, which advises the Environmental Protection Agency on policies that protect children’s health.
Sathyanarayana also helped create new guidelines that help healthcare providers teach families about chemicals. The guidelines highlight how a few simple steps – such as taking your shoes off before entering the house, keeping your windowsills clean and avoiding foods packaged in plastic – can dramatically reduce the amount of chemicals in a household.
Sathyanarayana believes that this strategy of informing and empowering families could be the best way to limit chemicals’ health impact.
“It would take decades and billions of dollars to understand the effects of all the chemicals we’re exposed to, and in the meantime we’re seeing a lot of disease that could be prevented,” she says. “It might be a lot more efficient to help people find easy ways to protect themselves.”