Children's Health and Environment Program

The Children's Health and Environment Program (CHEP) is part of the Child Health Research Centre at The University of Queensland. Led by Professor Peter Sly, the Children’s Health and Environment Program (CHEP) aims to address the impact of environmental exposures on child health through a holistic approach to environmental health research and policy reform. Our research focuses on understanding early life mechanisms of disease, and on improving risk assessment for environmental exposures - the process of estimating or measuring the magnitude, frequency and duration of environmental exposures in children.

The group conduct bench to bedside research that aims to understand environmental contributions to chronic disease, with an emphasis on chronic childhood lung diseases such as asthma and cystic fibrosis. With research that spans a continuum from basic science, longitudinal cohort studies, clinical trials, and translation of findings into clinical practice, we work to delay or prevent lung disease, improve its clinical management and halt its progression as children transition to adulthood.

CHEP is part of the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) and The Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre (AID) within UQ.

We have active research collaborations with international and national groups, including:

The research program has been funded by:

What is Children's Environmental Health?

Young children interact with the environment in their homes, and in educational or child care establishments through breathing air, consuming food and water, and through "mouthing behaviours" in which they put their hands, feet, and other objects into their mouths resulting in non-nutritive ingestion.

Trans-placental transfer, breast milk, and non-nutritive ingestion result in unique exposure pathways for children. It is therefore critical that we understand the level of contamination within these environments so that we can assess exposure and risk and health impacts.

Did you know that children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults? This means that they receive a higher “dose” of any toxicant in the environment which places them at higher risk of ill effects from harmful contaminants in the environment.

Why is research in environmental health needed?

The global pattern and causes of disease have changed. The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health states that pollution, in its broadest sense, is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world today. Pollution caused three time more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined in 2015.

Globally, early childhood deaths and deaths from communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorders have declined. In contrast, deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are increasing; accounting for 70 per cent of all deaths globally today.

The Australian situation is no different with high incidence of NCDs including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD), asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and neurobehavioral problems. As NCDs become more prevalent, the future costs of diagnosis and treatment are likely to increase dramatically, thus highlighting an imperative to intervene in early life, optimise nutrition, and prevent and reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals/toxicants.

Our modern Australian environments are contaminated by an increasing variety of chemicals that increase the risk of NCDs, yet public awareness of the risks, and of avoidable exposures, is low. Low awareness contributes to human behaviours that perpetuate and even increase exposures to these pollutants.

Ecological exposures include contamination of air, water, soil, and the food chain by environmental toxicants from large scale industries, such as extractive industries, flame retardants and per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from fire-fighting foam, and agricultural pesticides, potentially affecting populations living in the vicinity of these activities. As an example, extractive industries play an important role in the Australian economy but may pose a special risk to those living around them from environmental contamination, change in land use, social disruption, and population displacement.

Modern household exposures include plastics and plasticisers, flame retardants, pesticides, cleaning products, and personal care products – all of which can have adverse health effects.

Ambient air exposures include combustion-related products from traffic, wood smoke, bushfires, coal-fired power generation, and industrial emissions.

The role of the Children's Health and Environment Program

While the general public is becoming better informed and increasingly concerned about adverse environmental influences on health, the environmental threats to the health of children are not high on the research agenda in Australia.

From our location within the Centre for Children's Health Research (adjacent to the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital), the Children's Health and Environment Program is well-placed to develop a coordinated and ambitious plan for children's environmental health research to improve outcomes for children in Australia and internationally.

Our research aims to keep children safe from DETRIMENTAL and AVOIDABLE environmental exposures, reduce life-long risk of non-communicable diseases (NCD), and improve clinical outcomes by investigating:

  • how environmental exposures impact on NCD risk
  • the mechanisms of NCD development following environmental exposures
  • the populations within Australia that face the most risk at a population level
  • how to protect children from environmental exposures so they can live safer, healthier lives.

Ultimately our goals are to:

  • generate new knowledge and evidence of the links between environmental exposures and disease mechanisms
  • translate research into improved public health policy and clinical practice
  • train the health workforce to recognise and respond to environmental exposures
  • collaborate widely to ensure public engagement and to positively influence environmental and public health policy for effective and efficient prevention for improving life-long health.

Projects and research interests


We have a range of projects being undertaken under the following areas of interest:

Air pollution in Vietnam

In recent decades, Hanoi has faced serious air pollution; however, few studies of the effects of ambient air pollution on health have been conducted in Vietnam while they have been studied extensively in many developed countries. The aims of this study are to examine the short-term effects of particulate matter (PM) and other air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and ozone (O3) on hospital admissions for respiratory diseases among young children in Hanoi. Better understanding of the effect of ambient air pollution on children's health in Vietnam will contribute to the improvement of public health and environmental quality.

ELLF: Early Life Lung Function

Respiratory infections are the most commonly experienced illnesses throughout life, but especially during the first two years when infants may have six to eight infections each year. Emerging evidence indicates infections early in life along with other insults to developing airways in susceptible children may contribute to later development of chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic bronchitis.

We have previously collected detailed information on respiratory infections in the first two years of life for children who have participated in the ORChID study. The purpose of this study is to follow these children in early childhood up to the age of 7 years and track their lung function as a measure of respiratory health, as well as their immune response to common environmental allergens.


Innate immune response in respiratory epithelium

Lower respiratory illnesses in the first year or two of life, especially those associated with wheeze and/or fever, are major risk factors for poor respiratory health. Recent data suggests that bacteria and viruses commonly found in the nose in early life may increase the risk of subsequent disease.

This project will take advantage of a unique, community-based birth cohort (ELLF), in whom the presence of respiratory viruses and bacteria in the upper airway and respiratory symptoms during the first 2 years of life have been determined from weekly nasal swabs and a daily symptom diary. This project will determine how nasal cells obtained from either adults (asthmatic or healthy) and the children birth cohort respond in laboratory-based culture when infected with bacteria, in addition to assessing the cell response when co-infected with respiratory viruses.

Kids and chemicals in the home

Help us study how Australian children are exposed to chemicals that are commonly found in our homes.

The ‘Kids and Chemicals in the Home Study’ is a Queensland first study, investigating how patterns of chemical use in homes influence children’s exposure to chemicals. 

In recent years researchers have begun focusing more on how the chemicals that we might be exposed to in early life influence our heath.  There is concern that some of the chemicals that are commonly found in products in the home might disrupt the body’s normal functioning and development.  The chemicals that we are specifically investigating are pesticides, specifically pyrethroid and organophosphate insecticides, and flame retardants.  These chemicals are found in all homes in low levels.  However, in Australia in particular, we don’t know a lot about how much of these chemicals babies are exposed to.  We need to know more about how much of these chemicals babies are exposed to before we can study the health effects properly. The aim of this study is to help provide an easy way to figure out what chemicals and how much of those chemicals Australian babies are exposed to in the home.  

In this current study we want to figure out how well an online tool predicts exposure to common pesticides and flame retardants.  The data we are collecting will also provide us with information that will help us determine how much of these chemicals Australian children are exposed to and how they are exposed to these chemicals.  

What does taking part in this study involve?

  1. Take biological samples over a two-day period
  2. Complete a questionnaire


Lung function in preschoolers

The preschool years represent a crucial period in lung development. Longitudinal studies have shown that deficits in lung function start in early life with long term consequences into adulthood. This highlights the importance of being able to reliably and accurately measure the lung function of preschool aged children to aid in the diagnosis, treatment and management of children with suspected or known respiratory disease.

Our team, together with the University of Szeged, Hungary have developed a modified version of the Forced Oscillation Technique (FOT) to non-invasively measure the lung function of preschool aged children. This project aims to develop normative reference data for preschool aged children measured using the modified FOT set-up and to develop a more sensitive measure of lung function to detect changes in lung function during the preschool years.

Macropages in cystic fibrosis

Macrophages are key cells in innate immune responses and play a critical role in orchestrating both initiation and resolution of pulmonary inflammation. In response to immune insults or injury, monocytes originated from bone-marrow migrate to the tissues, differentiate into macrophages (M0) and polarize into pro-inflammatory (classically activated or M1) or inflammation-resolving (alternatively activated or M2) phenotypes. These two compartments are well characterized in mouse model. In human, the border line between M1 and M2 polarization was vague until recently. Therefore macrophage responses in cystic fibrosis (CF) were mostly studied in mouse model. We have developed an ex-vivo model of human macrophages that reliably separates un-polarized (M0), M1 and M2 macrophages. Using this model we recently reported that activation of inflammation-resolving M2 macrophages were impaired in CF. In addition, we observed early expression of pro-inflammatory M1 macrophage markers in monocyte-derived M0 macrophages in patients with CF. Similar M1 and M2 markers expression was observed when macrophages from healthy donors were treated with CFTR channel inhibitor suggesting that defection M2 polarization is CFTR-dependent. We are aiming to study the link between CFTR function and macrophage polarization and functions.


Oxidative stress in cystic fibrosis - Wound healing in asthma

Injury to the airway epithelium occurs frequently as it comes in direct contact with external stimuli that cause damage and force repair. The first and most important event occurring after wounding is cell migration, and in asthma it is known to be structurally and functionally abnormal. Growing airway epithelial cells in vitro at air-liquid interface (ALI) allows for a representative model of the airways. This study will determine the key mechanisms involved in airway epithelium wound healing and establish the baseline characteristics.

Public health

CHEP has established collaborations with the School of Public Health, The University of Queensland (SPH) to add a children's environmental health focus to the Master of Public Health (MPH) program and to offer opportunities for prospective Higher Degree Research Students.

Areas of collaboration include assessing the environmental contribution to the burden of disease in children, increasing the "child" focus of existing and new population health research, and developing joint education programs in children's environmental health.

Environmental exposures

Collaborations with Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAESH), The University of Queensland has already been established combining expertise in quantifying exposures to harmful chemicals in the environment with paediatric epidemiology and health outcome expertise. Strong collaborative links have been established, in particular with Professor Jochen Mueller and Professor Kevin Thomas.

Collaborative studies underway or in the planning include:

  • Optimising techniques for assessing exposure of infants and young children to environmental chemicals
  • Measuring environmental exposures and their health consequences in birth cohort studies.

Little Things Matter: The Impact of Toxins on the Developing Brain

A seven minute video, presented by Dr Bruce Lanphear, helps people understand the population impact of exposures to environmental toxins. After studying the impact of toxins on children for many years researchers have reached the conclusion that “little things matter”. The presentation is very graphical and easy to follow and ends with a list of suggestions to help avoid exposure to toxins.

Watch the Video

Environmental infections

Evidence is accumulating that climate change is resulting in a change in the distribution of infections, especially food, water, and vector-borne diseases.

Such changes will result in Australia facing an increase in diseases our work force is not trained to handle. Collaborations within CHRC (Infection, Inflammation and the Environment theme) and with The University of Queensland Australian Infectious Disease (AID) Research Centre will see CHEP well placed to contribute to an improved outcome for Australian children.

In addition, we have seen the impact on human health of zoonoses. Existing collaborations between CHRC and the School of Veterinary Science, The University of Queensland can be extended to help address such issues in children's health.

Neurodevelopment and mental health

CHEP is collaborating on several projects investigating the impact of environmental exposures on neurodevelopment and mental health in children. CHEP and Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAESH) are providing expertise in environmental monitoring to the Barwon Infant Study, co-ordinated by Dr. Peter Vuillermin and Professor Anne-Louise Ponsonby, Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Melbourne.

Participate in our research

We have a number of opportunities for parents and children to participate in our research.

Current studies are listed on the Participate in our research section of our website

WHO Collaborating Centre for Children's Health and Environment

The Children's Health and Environment program has been endorsed for the second consecutive term as a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Children's Health and the Environment.

This prestigious position acknowledges the considerable expertise resident within the program and the work being done to understand and inform about environmental exposures and the impacts on child health.

Learn more about our Collaborating Centre:

Clinical trials

Combat CF

This is a phase 3 multi-centre randomized placebo-controlled study of azithromycin in the primary prevention of radiologically-defined bronchiectasis in infants with cystic fibrosis. The purpose of this study is to see if we can prevent or delay the onset of lung disease in children with Cystic Fibrosis by giving them Azithromycin from when they are very young.

The study is funded by Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Therapeutics in the US and the sponsor for the study is Telethon Kids Institute. There are eight centres across Australia and New Zealand (Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Auckland). Total of 130 participants have to be recruited for the study. The recruitment is still in progress for the study.

The children diagnosed with cystic fibrosis by New Born Screening can be enrolled in the study by six months of age. They will receive azithromycin or placebo thrice a week till the age of 3 years. There are 14 visits to the hospital with bronchoscopy at the first visit and then at the age of 1 ad 3 years and the CT scans are done at the age of 1 and 3 years.

For enquiries about the study please contact the clinical team on

Prevention of Asthma in Children

(OM-85 in Prevention of Asthma in Children)

This is a phase 2, single-centre, double blind, randomised, placebo-controlled, study testing the primary prevention of persistent asthma in high risk children by protection against acute respiratory infections during early childhood using OM-85. Persistent asthma is a major problem yet none of the current therapies do more than control the condition. The long-term solution is to prevent asthma from progressing to the persistent form. The purpose of this study is to see if we can prevent asthma by stopping some of the events that happen early in life which may cause asthma. These are events like respiratory tract infections (colds and flu), wheezing and sensitisation to allergens.

OM-85 is an immune-stimulant which primes the immune system so that the body can respond quickly to infections and reduce damage to the lungs to prevent asthma from developing. OM-85 is a capsule and powder from capsule is dissolved in water and given to the child. The child receives OM-85 or placebo as five blocks of 10 days treatment plus 20 days no treatment for two winters and then they are followed up in the third year without any treatment.

This study is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and is being conducted at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane. Child Health Research Centre at The University of Queensland is the sponsor for the study. The recruitment for this study has been completed.

For enquiries about the study please contact the clinical team on

OMPAC final report is now available

Education, training and engagement

There is a general lack of awareness of the particular vulnerability of children to adverse environmental exposures. To raise awareness of environmental exposures and the risk to children, we are collaborating with schools at The University of Queensland to produce and deliver educational material on children's environmental health targeted to undergraduate and postgraduate students, the continuing education of health care professionals, environmental health officers, and interested members of the public.

Education for Higher Degree Students

CHEP has a focus on education and training, adding a children's environmental health component to Masters Level education and short summer courses in the School of Public Health, in conjunction with Dr Luke Knibbs. CHEP staff currently contribute to the supervision of 15 RhD students at UQ and have had 9 successful PhD completions since 2014.

Intern program

CHEP runs an Intern program which exposes participants to children’s environmental health projects.

Responsibilities may include:

  • conducting research to update World Health Organization training modules
  • drafting a monthly newsletter, assisting staff with researching, writing and editing publications
  • assisting staff with the planning and reporting of workshops and events
  • undertaking some administrative tasks.

Interns will gain vital skills and networking opportunities in environmental health and experience of children’s environmental health issues and research.


Enrolled in or recently completed an undergraduate, honours, or master’s degree in public health, medicine, environmental health, international relations or a related field.

Excellent command of written and spoken English, experience with MS Office Applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), excellent communications skills, attention to detail, and ability to work independently are required.


The internship will be based in the Centre for Children’s Health Research in South Brisbane, and will be advertised on the UQ Jobs page when applications are open. Interns are provided with desk space, internet access and UQ library access.

This is an unpaid position with flexible hours. A time commitment of at least one regular day per week is required. Positions are held for 3 to 6 months

Education materials

Link between Air Pollution and Allergies

Our Collaborations

To maximise our impact, we have forged strong and active local and international collaborations.

Within The University of Queensland, we have strong partnerships with the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS), formally known as the National Centre for Environmental Toxicology (ENTOX), the School of Public Health, and the Global Change Institute.

External to The University of Queensland, we collaborate regularly with:

We also work with scientists to conduct research programs in developing countries including Brazil, Thailand, China, Mexico, India, and South Africa. Collectively, these collaborations enable us to conduct research with global reach and relevance. It also means students and staff have the opportunity to gain exposure to, and experience with, major international and national environmental health groups.

Public Engagement

CHEP provides The University of Queensland with the opportunity to take a leadership role in engaging the public in children's environmental health and in child health advocacy. CHEP has recently taken over producing the Healthy Environments for Children Alliance newsletter, a joint venture from WHO and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). By engaging with public interest groups such as the National Toxics Network we can supply accurate information that will increase public awareness and ensure The University of Queensland is at the forefront of discourse relating to childhood environmental exposures.

Publications and annual reports

CHEP Annual Reports

WHO Collaborating Centre Annual Reports

WHO Publications in Environmental Health


  • WHO, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health: The role of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health (PHE) within the overall work of WHO is to promote a healthier environment, intensify primary prevention and influence public policies in all sectors so as to address the root causes of environmental and social threats to health. PHE develops and promotes preventive policies and interventions based on an understanding and an in-depth scientific analysis of the evidence base for environmental and social determinants of human health. 
  • The Pacific Basin Consortium for Environment and Health: The Pacific Basin Consortium (PBC) was established in 1986 by a group of scientists and engineers to facilitate dialogue and cooperation among scientists, industry professionals, government officials, students and policy makers regarding the problems associated with hazardous waste production, management and remediation in the Pacific Basin. 
  • Solving the E-waste Initiative (StEP): Solving the E-waste Initiative (StEP) is a platform for varied actors to proactively work on long-term solutions to the e-waste problem. StEP projects are grouped into five task forces: Policy, ReDesign, ReUse, ReCycle and Capacity Building. A recent addition to StEP’s activities is the E-waste Academy program. Involving scientists and policy makers, the E-waste Academy is a set of annual workshops aiming to foster communication and create connected experts in all spheres of e-waste management.
  • Basel Convention: The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted on 22 March 1989 by the Conference of Plenipotentiaries in Basel, Switzerland, in response to a public outcry following the discovery, in the 1980s, in Africa and other parts of the developing world of deposits of toxic wastes imported from abroad. 
  • CSIR Water Research Institute: The Water Research Institute (WRI) is one of the 13 research institutes of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Its mission is "to conduct research into water and related resources through the generation and provision of scientific information, strategies and services towards the rational development, utilisation and management of water resources of Ghana in support of socio–economic advancement of the country, especially in the agriculture, environment, health, industry, energy, transportation, education and tourism sectors." 
  • Children's Environmental Health Center, Mount Sinai Hospital: The Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC) conducts groundbreaking research to identify the environmental causes of childhood disease. They translate these findings into solutions that protect children’s health — using research to educate families and change public policy. 
  • Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS): As part of UQ's ongoing and successful environmental health partnership with Queensland Health, QAEHS is committed to establishing and maintaining multidisciplinary research expertise across a range of environmental health sciences. These include environmental aspects of toxicology, human health epidemiology, microbiology, health risk assessment, health risk communication, identification and analysis of emerging environmental health risks, and state-of-the art monitoring and analytical techniques, methodologies and technologies for environmental hazards and exposures.
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO): UNIDO is the specialized agency of the United Nations that promotes industrial development for poverty reduction, inclusive globalization and environmental sustainability. 
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU): ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies – ICTs. ITU aims to ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): UNEP's mission is to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. 
  • International Labour Organisation (ILO): The main aims of the ILO are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues. 
  • International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)The overall goal of the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour is the progressive elimination of child labour, which is to be achieved through strengthening the capacity of countries to deal with the problem and promoting a worldwide movement to combat child labour.
  • United Nations University (UNU): The United Nations University (UNU) is a global think tank and postgraduate teaching organization headquartered in Japan. The mission of the UNU is to contribute, through collaborative research and education, to efforts to resolve the pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare that are the concern of the United Nations, its Peoples and Member States. 
  • Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP): The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution was formed in 2012 in response to the growing crises posed by toxic pollution. GAHP is a collaborative body that facilitates the provision of technical and financial resources to governments and communities to reduce the impacts of pollution on health in low- and middle-income countries.
  • International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC): IETC have provided the manual on E-waste Volume III - WEEE/e-waste "Take back system". This manual aims to build the capacity of practitioners and decision makers to guide and assist them in understanding, planning, designing and implementing WEEE/e-waste take-back schemes. 
  • Mesothelioma Centre at Asbestos exposure has been linked to the development of serious respiratory diseases and cancers, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and other conditions. Asbestos exposure is most commonly related to occupational, environmental and secondhand factors.