Preterm babies are more likely to die during their first year of life, develop heart disease, diabetes or have trouble learning. (Photo credit: Lisa Nolan)

Using biostatistics to discover the impact of environmental toxins on preterm births

March 06, 2017

It seems like an unlikely match, but biostatistician Lawrence McCandless and children’s environmental health expert Bruce Lanphear have joined forces to examine the impact of widespread exposure to environmental contaminants during pregnancy on preterm births.

The two health sciences professors were recently awarded nearly $200,000 from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) to investigate whether toxic chemicals found in our everyday environments cause babies to be born too soon. Babies who are born preterm, which is three or more weeks before their due date, are more likely to die during their first year of life, develop heart disease, diabetes or have trouble learning.

“This project will develop new biostatistical methods and cutting-edge data analysis techniques to closely track the link between toxic chemical exposure and preterm births,” says McCandless.

The research team will comb through data from the Maternal-Infant Research Environmental Chemicals (MIREC) Study, which involves a cohort of 2,000 pregnant Canadian women and their infants.

“Toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and pesticides are found in our food, water, and consumer products. Yet we do not know much about how mixtures of toxic chemicals that are routinely found in pregnant women affect the health of infants and children,” says Lanphear.

The multidisciplinary study, which involves researchers from McGill University, Université de Sherbrooke, University of Cincinnati and Brown University will leverage perspectives from epidemiology, population and public health, perinatal epidemiology, and the policy domain.

Both McCandless and Lanphear hope that the study findings will help health professionals, the public, and governments that establish environmental policies and guidelines to limit exposures to toxic chemicals.

Preliminary findings from this study will be presented at the Semiahmoo Symposium on Environmental, Occupational and Public Health in January 2018.

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