Dr. Rebecca Simmons, the CEET’s deputy director and a CHOP pediatrician, has a message that she thinks everyone should know: your health prior to pregnancy and during pregnancy has profound implications for not just how your fetus and newborn develops, but for their health as an adult and for their children and grandchildren’s health! Dr. Simmons focuses her research on what the long term effects of a poor uterine environment are, especially on adult obesity and diabetes and on how exposure to chemicals that act like hormones in the body (endocrine disruptors) during development may impact obesity and diabetes later in life. How did she become interested in this area? During her fellowship, Dr. Simmons developed an interest in fetal metabolism and intrauterine growth restriction after realizing that 10% of babies are born smaller than they should be.
Most recently she has added asbestos to her list of chemical exposures of interest as part of the Superfund Research Program Center. She looks at the epigenetics (changes in how the genes work, beyond how they may have mutated due to chemical exposure) of early exposure to asbestos and what the longterm effects of that might be. Dr. Simmons asserts that for her work, big team science has been vital. Her work could not function without the help of immunologists helping to understand how exposures affect the immune system, or reproductive biologists explaining how chemicals affect reproduction or oocyte (egg) and sperm development.
Dr. Simmons believes that the most important aspect of her research, or application of her research, is lead exposure to the fetus during development. Originally she hypothesized that there might be metabolic disturbances caused by in utero lead exposure, but she did not find that. However, Dr. Simmons in collaboration with Dr. Sigrid Veasy, an Internal Medicine doctor and Dr. Jianghong, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania have found that children who have been exposed to lead have profound sleep disturbances which may lead to lasting harm. This finding was surprising and unanticipated. They think this will be a major issue with significant public health impact. Lead has been in the news because of Flint, Michigan, but Dr. Simmons made the point that these same lead exposures are happening in our backyard, literally the soil in the backyard, from peeling paint in our homes, and from lead service lines that carry drinking water into our homes – in Philadelphia and Lancaster, PA.
Dr Simmons stressed that while we find lowering rates of blood lead levels in middle and upper class white communities, environmental justice communities continue to have the same high rates of elevated blood lead levels. The public health message needs to be that it is a national problem that is not tackled and still very much a problem in many communities across the country. Most importantly this message needs to be translated from academia into legislation for public policy to reflect and address the problem.
If there was one key message that Dr. Simmons has learned from her research its that: Your health has implications for your child and who they become as an adult. People think once they have a healthy newborn they are finished. Mission accomplished. However, the chemicals and nutrition that people are exposed to even as a child matter throughout life and also to future generations.