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The IKIDS study is uncovering how prenatal exposure to chemicals can affect a child’s development


An IKIDS researcher at UIUC conducts a part of the study with a child participant. IKIDS aims to understand how exposures to chemicals in consumer products can affect children’s physical development and neurodevelopment. Photo courtesy of Beckman Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Chemicals and other environmental exposures are affecting the neurodevelopment of babies and children, according to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign research study IKIDS

IKIDS, which stands for Illinois Kids Development Study, follows pregnant people from their first trimester and measures their health and exposures to chemicals in consumer products. Researchers then study how those exposures may be affecting children’s physical development and neurodevelopment. 

Susan Schantz, director of IKIDS and a professor emerita at UIUC, said the study not only aims to understand the negative effects of certain chemicals and other exposures, but also the positive impact of factors like a healthy diet. 

“We’re really focused on understanding what the risks are, but also understanding what the positive health aspects that could mitigate those risks are,” Schantz said. 

The research study has enrolled around 430 moms and children, starting nearly a decade ago. IKIDS recently received additional funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to recruit additional participants and continue the study for seven more years. 

More recently, IKIDS became part of a new study conducted by the NIH, known as ECHO, or Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes.

“The goal of ECHO is to enroll eventually 60,000 children, across the county and in Puerto Rico, and follow their health from birth through age 21 to see how environmental factors, during the prenatal and early postnatal period, affect their development,” Schantz said.

IKIDS focuses on chemicals that are most often used in everyday life. So far, researchers have found that exposure to phthalates, common in plastics and fragranced personal care products, may delay physical reasoning and slow information processing speeds in babies. 

The study also notes sex differences, with male infants showing more pronounced effects: “Both of those effects were more prominent in male infants than female infants,” Schantz said.

Beyond phthalates, IKIDS is examining other common chemicals like phenols, found in makeup and household items, and PFAS, known as "forever chemicals," used in everything from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam. 

An IKIDS researcher interviews a study participant. Susan Schantz, director of IKIDS, said the study not only aims to understand the negative effects of certain chemicals and other exposures, but also the positive impact of factors like a healthy diet.

Photo courtesy of Beckman Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering banning phthalates in food contact materials, Schantz said, and she hopes the study’s findings will have an influence on that decision.

“Hopefully the research that we’re doing that shows that there are impacts for child development with [phthalates] will help push the FDA towards making the right decision and banning phthalates in food contact materials,” she said. “That’s one way that we hope to have an impact that would be positive.” 

It’s hard to prove that chemical exposure causes delayed development, Schantz said. To address this, the studies are designed to look into as many potential confounding variables as possible, like whether someone smokes or what their diet was while pregnant.

“We never know for sure what all those potential confounding variables are, and we never have data on everything. That’s why it’s important in epidemiology to have more than one study,” Schantz said. “If many studies converge on the same findings, then that gives you increased confidence that the effects are real, and they’re related to the chemical and not some other factor.” 

Schantz said the additional funding received by IKIDS will allow them to recruit an additional 600 pregnant people. In the first period of recruitment, most women enrolled were white, college educated and higher-income, she said, but the extra funding will help them focus more on underrepresented demographics. 

“Low-income women and women of color are really underrepresented in research studies,” she said. “Our focus this time is to try to recruit low-income women who may be at higher risk just because of all the other stressors in their lives.” 

Schantz said she hopes the funding will also help researchers better understand the long-term impacts of the early exposures of the studied chemicals. 

IKIDS is recruiting people under 20 weeks pregnant at several locations across Champaign County, including Promise HealthcareChampaign-Urbana Public Health District and Carle Foundation Hospital’s OB clinic.