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The links between environmental exposures and certain health conditions continue to be made, confirmed, and analyzed. A new study, however, is taking this body of knowledge to the next level. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that blood samples taken from preschoolers detected whether or not the mothers of these children had smoked during pregnancy.

The work of the researchers built upon epigenetics, the study of how genes are expressed in the body – essentially how they are turned “on and off” – when there are certain external or environmental factors present. These genetic ”biomarkers” can help researchers make connections to how cells read genes and the development of certain diseases or health conditions. The findings of this study, published in the journal Environmental Research, were noteworthy not only because blood samples were utilized (which is easy to collect and had never been done before), but also because this adds to existing evidence that the effects of smoking and other environmental exposures during the prenatal period can remain in the body of children and potentially impact their health for years after birth. Researchers tested blood from children at six different sites in the United States, spoke with mothers about their pregnancy, and were able to see positive correlation in up to 81% of the tests. Some of these children were as old as five.

Although it is much harder to ask mothers about prenatal toxin exposure they are not aware of, the hope is that this research could assist in making strides to identify the impact of other environmental exposures, like plastics or contaminants in drinking water.

Ultimately, the study of epigenetics and research like this seeks to understand how detrimental experiences and exposure during the prenatal period may or may not be linked to chronic diseases – such as autism, heart disease, and obesity – later in life. The goal is to prevent the development of these diseases as early as possible….even as early as the first months in the womb.