The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston has received a $1 million grant to study whether the plastic products used in neonatal intensive care units have an adverse effect on children’s health.

More than 300,000 preterm infants in the United States are admitted to NICUs each year, according to Andrea Duncan, MD, M.S.ClinRes, associate professor at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School and an attending physician with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, lead researcher of the study.  The study will examine how exposure to chemicals such as phthalates could affect children’s long term health outcomes. The chemicals are used in plastic products such as IV tubes and catheters and can leach into the liquid solutions carried in the tubing or be inhaled.

“Studies of term kids have shown that exposure to phthalates in the third trimester affects them. It’s not known if that occurs with pre-term kids. There’s out of the mother but still being exposed [in the NICU]. We’re trying to see what the effect is,” Duncan says.

Some of the adverse outcomes suffered by preterm infants include lower cognitive abilities, diminished motor skills, pulmonary function and growth issues and abnormal pubertal development.  The study will look at whether exposure to phthalates contributes to these impairments.

The study, which will be rolled out in 2017 in several pilot sites, will use existing samples of the infants’ urine already collected in the NICU, where it is known how much daily exposure to phthalates the infants had. The study will enroll about 1,000 infants who had been admitted to a NICU at 15 different locations.  The researchers will bring the children – who are now between 3 and 10 years old - back each year to assess their development, following them for the next few years. 

“It’s an opportunity to see the babies for much longer, into school age. It will provide good data on development and outcomes. It’s important to find out what to do differently to help these babies,” Duncan says.

The grant is part of the National Institute of Health’s seven-year initiative called Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes, which will look at a range of exposures that can impact children.

“As survival of these preemies is increasing, it’s important to help them meet their potential and be successful in society,” Duncan says.