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Med Hypotheses. 2010 Feb;74(2):318-24. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.08.044. Epub 2009 Sep 17.

Large prospective birth cohort studies on environmental contaminants and child health - goals, challenges, limitations and needs.

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Department of Obstetrics and Gyneocology, Sainte Justine Hospital, University of Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


The adverse health effects of environmental contaminants (ECs) are a rising public health concern, and a major threat to sustainable socioeconomic development. The developing fetuses and growing children are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of ECs. However, assessing the health impact of ECs presents a major challenge, given that multiple outcomes may arise from one exposure, multiple exposures may result in one outcome, and the complex interactions between ECs, and between ECs, nutrients and genetic factors, and the dynamic temporal changes in EC exposures during the life course. Large-scale prospective birth cohort studies collecting extensive data and specimen starting from the prenatal or pre-conception period, although costly, hold promise as a means to more clearly quantify the health effects of ECs, and to unravel the complex interactions between ECs, nutrients and genotypes. A number of such large-scale studies have been launched in some developed counties. We present an overview of "why", "what" and "how" behind these efforts with an objective to uncover major unidentified limitations and needs. Three major limitations were identified: (1) limited data and bio-specimens regarding early life EC exposure assessments in some birth cohort studies; (2) heavy participant burdens in some birth cohort studies may bias participant recruitment, and risk substantial loss to follow-up, protocol deviations limiting the quality of data and specimens collection, with an overall potential bias towards the null effect; (3) lack of concerted efforts in building comparable birth cohorts across countries to take advantage of natural "experiments" (large EC exposure level differences between countries) for more in-depth assessments of dose-response relationships, threshold exposure levels, and positive and negative effect modifiers. Addressing these concerns in current or future large-scale birth cohort studies may help to produce better evidence on the health effects of ECs.

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