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RTI International Awarded EPA Center Grant to Study Chemical Exposures and Caregiving Environment on Early Childhood Developmental Health

The $1.9M funding supports a new EPA Center for Early Lifestage Vulnerabilities to Environmental Stressors and Partners with NCCU’s Health Equity, Environment and Population (HOPE) program

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, is the recipient of a $1.9M grant award by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create an EPA STAR (Science to Achieve Results) Center for Early Lifestage Vulnerabilities to Environmental Stressors. The new Center will focus on two individual research projects over four years:

  • Evaluating the Causal Impacts of Early Life Chemical Exposures on Neurodevelopmental Functioning in Early Childhood – Researchers will identify the occurrences and types of chemicals found in toddler’s caregiving environments and evaluate how these cumulative chemical exposures are associated with neurodevelopmental functioning in early childhood.
  • Investigating Whether the Caregiving Environment Moderates the Impact of Early Life Chemical Exposures on Neurodevelopmental Functioning in Early Childhood – Researchers will investigate whether home caregiving environments alter the impacts of early life chemical exposures on neurodevelopmental outcomes in early childhood.

The research projects support one of the EPA’s top priorities: protecting childhood health.

“We are elated to receive this grant focused on how environmental exposures and early caregiving affect neurodevelopment for toddlers and preschoolers,” said Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, a senior environmental health scientist and Contact Principal Investigator. “Working with community partners, child care centers, parents, and children, we plan to study the dual exposome and caregiving environment of kids attending child care centers using non-invasive multimedia sampling and developmental assessments.”

The center is joining RTI’s multidisciplinary expertise in environmental health science, laboratory science, community-based participatory research, and education.

“Our research considers early childhood as a sensitive period during which the impacts of chemical exposures on brain development and the impacts of early caregiving environment affect biological programming and experiences, thereby shaping executive functioning and behavior,” said Michael Willoughby, a senior research public health fellow at RTI and Co-Principal Investigator. “With our center, we aim to identify which children are most vulnerable to the impacts of chemical exposures on neurodevelopment and to identify novel and actionable strategies that support vulnerable families and children.”

Importantly, RTI researchers are partnered with North Carolina Central University’s (NCCU) Health Equity, Environment and Population (HOPE) program to promote environmental health literacy and education activities related to the center’s research for children, families, childcare staff, and community stakeholders.

“The grant is an example of a successful partnership between North Carolina Central University and RTI and is aligned with our mission of addressing health disparities,” said Deepak Kumar, Ph.D., director of the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute at NCCU and Co-Director of the Translational Core of the Center. “The project will leverage our HOPE Program and community network to share evidence-based interventions to prevent contaminant exposures and support ideal caregiving environments in an effort to reduce widespread health disparities in underserved populations.”  

Researchers will be reaching out to community stakeholders this fall to assist with outreach and recruitment for families who send their 12- to 24-month-old children to licensed child care centers in central North Carolina.

View EPA’s press release

About RTI International
RTI International is an independent, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition. Clients rely on us to answer questions that demand an objective and multidisciplinary approach — one that integrates expertise across the social and laboratory sciences, engineering and international development. We believe in the promise of science, and we are inspired every day to deliver on that promise for the good of people, communities and businesses around the world. 

Additional core staff for the center grant include Co-I Keith Levine,  Administrative Core Co-Directors AJ Kondash and Anna Aceituno, QA Officers Kesha Hudson and Andrea McWilliams, and Siri Warkentien of RTI, along with Translation Core Co-Director William Pilkington of NCCU.

About North Carolina Central University (NCCU)
NCCU is an accredited historically Black college or university (HBCU) chartered in Durham, NC, in 1909 as the nation’s first publicly funded liberal arts institution for African Americans. The Health Equity, Environment and Population Health (HOPE) program’s mission is to address racial health disparities that exist throughout North Carolina, which are indicative of larger trends in the United States. HOPE Program staff work in underserved communities with significant minority populations that suffer from health disparities. We have developed effective partnerships in the Center study area between academics and community stakeholders (such as schools, community-based organizations, healthcare providers, public health departments, elected officials, clergy, social service agencies, and law enforcement). Our program engages entire communities with cultural sensitivity, attention to and respect for each individual’s contributions, and mutual trust.

About EPA’s STAR Program
EPA’s STAR program stimulates and supports scientific and engineering research that advances EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment. It is a competitive, peer reviewed, extramural research program that provides access to the nation’s best scientists and engineers in academic and other nonprofit research institutions. The STAR program funds research on the environmental and public health effects of air quality, environmental changes, water quality and quantity, hazardous waste, toxic substances, and pesticides. For more information about these grants, click here.