Today’s children face health threats that are far different from those of previous generations. Infectious disease has almost disappeared, but asthma rates have doubled. Learning disabilities are rising sharply with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, autism and mental retardation now affecting somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the four million children born each year. The prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled in recent years. And while it is a miracle of modern medicine that we can now cure a high proportion of childhood leukemia cases, it is sobering to realize that its incidence has risen by more than 60 percent in the past three decades.

Why is this happening? Is it something in the air? Is it chemicals in the water? Is it a diet laced with junk food and soda pop? Is it sedentary lifestyles? Is it the video games?

Over the past five years, a coalition of government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency has prepared a study that will provide answers to many of these questions. The National Children’s Study – a 20-year, $2.7 billion plan to closely monitor 100,000 children from conception through their 21st birthdays – promises to be the government’s most audacious “big science” program since the $3 billion Human Genome Project.

In terms of scientific impact, its planners liken it to the classic Framingham heart study, which began in the late 1940s and taught scientists much of what they know today about the relationship between risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol and heart disease. “We anticipate the NCS will yield equally enormous societal benefits,” said pediatrician Philip J. Landrigan, one of the intellectual architects of the study. “Six of the chronic diseases that the study plans to examine – obesity, injury, asthma, diabetes, schizophrenia, and autism – cost America $642 billion per year. If the NCS were to produce a reduction of only 1 percent in incidence of these diseases, the annual savings would amount to $6.4 billion, far more than the $2.7 billion price tag of the study.”

Alas, the NCS is about to fall victim to the Bush administration’s neglect. Over the past five years, the various agencies have cobbled together enough money to develop the comprehensive study plan (you can read all about the study here). It involves setting up dozens of centers in representative communities across the U.S. But monitoring the 100,000 families and their environmental exposures over two decades will take more than a thousand scientists, including epidemiologists, physicians, air and water specialists, sociologists and psychologists. In the ramp-up years, the study needs about $200 million per year, gradually falling back to about $100 million after the program is underway.

The project’s start has already been delayed by more than a year. The administration again failed to include it in next year’s budget. At a Kaiser Family Foundation forum last week, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni refused to reprogram other spending at his agency to pay for this vital research. “I don’t think it’s fair to take from Peter to pay Paul,” he said. The National Institute of Child Health and Development – the lead institute for the project – has little clout within the agency. The money will have to come by special appropriation.

Microbiologists and geneticists lobbied hard to make the Human Genome Project a reality. But scientists who care about kids appear to have little sway in Washington. No one on Capitol Hill has stepped forward to champion the study even though it has been endorsed by over 30 major national organizations ranging from the March of Dimes to the American Academy of Pediatricians to the American Chemistry Council. Yes, even the chemical industry’s chief lobbying arm is supporting this objective look at what may be poisoning the kids.

Last month, the coalition sent a letter to Rep. Ralph Regula (R-OH), who chairs the relevant appropriations subcommittee in the House. “We believe that it would be extremely shortsighted to put off this study,” the groups wrote. “Environmental influences are powerful determinants of health, especially in our children. Yet research into the impact of the environment on children’s health has lagged.” So far, nobody has answered the call. “When it didn’t get funding this year, there were real losses,” said Carol Stroebel, a lobbyist for the Children’s Environmental Health Network, one of the groups backing the study. “If it doesn’t get funding next year, the entire program will be in real trouble.”

Merrill Goozner is director of the Integrity in Science Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This column first appeared on GoozNews, Mr. Goozner’s personal website.

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