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. Under the leadership of Professor Peter Sly, the program has been designated for the second time as the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Children's Health and the Environment.

The WHOCC is a member of the WHO network for Children's Environmental Health-Read more below.

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 makes 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, and
  • 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, and
  • 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.

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:

Research interests

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

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 have 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 KevinThomas.

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.

Associate Professor James Scott has joined CHEP as an "external member" and will lead a Mental Health Group. Initial research will centre on bullying in children.

Publications

CHEP Annual Reports

WHO Collaborating Centre Annual Reports

WHO Publications in Environmental Health

Education and training

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 12 RhD students at UQ and have had 3 successful PhD completions since 2014.

 

Collaborations, outreach and engagement

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.

Links

  • 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.com: 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.