ROCHESTER, Minn. — Calling it "a first-of-its-kind state effort to systematically measure children’s exposures," Minnesota health officials have launched a statewide biomonitoring project to identify harmful environmental agents in children.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday, Nov. 16, announced its Healthy Kids Minnesota program, moving a preliminary project from north Minneapolis and central Minnesota to pre-school age children in Minneapolis and southeast Minnesota.

The new statewide program will collect urine samples from children ages 3-6 whose parents agree to their participation. The samples will be taken during early childhood screening appointments, which are required in Minnesota in order to enter kindergarten.

In addition to standard assessments (vision and hearing, thinking and language skills and social and emotional development), lab evaluation of samples from participating children would help the project identify chemical exposures in different communities.

The project will use the information to inform families of their test outcomes, including strategies to lower their exposures. Results will also help promote policies that reduce childhood exposures.

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Participating families will be compensated with a $40 gift card for their time. All participants will be ensured of their privacy according to Minnesota law.

“This new approach will provide key information about kids’ environmental exposures to chemicals and that in turn will help us learn more about how we can help parents, health care providers and communities limit harmful exposures,” Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said in a statement.

Project to test for 45 chemicals

After submitting samples to the state lab, the program will screen for exposure to 45 classes of chemicals, including metals, phthalates, pesticides, flame retardants, particles from air pollution such as smoking and cars, as well as environmental phenols found in common household products.

"Chemicals measured in Healthy Kids Minnesota may harm development in kids or cause other health concerns," MDH spokesperson Scott Smith explained in an email.

"Depending on the chemical and how much a child is exposed to, these could include: learning and behavior problems, interference with the body’s natural hormone levels, effects on the reproductive system, increased cancer risk, damage to the heart and kidneys, and skin sensitivity and or allergy."

Absent from the list is pharmaceutical pollution, or the residual absorption of prescription drugs now making their way into the groundwater and water supply, Smith confirmed.

Those chemicals reflect ubiquitous use of painkillers, antibiotics, psychotropics, hormones and heart medications, all of which have been found to collect in waterways and which can pass through the water treatment process to enter the drinking water, according to researchers at Harvard University and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Acknowledging the problem, the Minnesota Department of Health in 2015 published a report detailing water screening values for 119 medications, asserting "the amount of an active pharmaceutical ingredient in water that can be consumed daily with no expected health risk to humans."

Smith's email also highlighted the MDH Drinking Water Protection program, "a new project that looks for a broad group of unregulated contaminants in source water (groundwater, lakes, and rivers) used for drinking water and also in the drinking water as it leaves the well or treatment plant."

The CDC chose its chemicals for inclusion in the project according multiple criteria, including scientific data suggesting their exposure in the U.S. population, seriousness of health effects thought to result from exposure, need for assessing the efficacy of reducing a given chemical, testing ability and cost.

While chemicals collect in air, soil and water, "with a few exceptions, it is the concentration of a chemical in people that provides the best exposure information to evaluate the potential for adverse health effects," according to CDC communications.

MDH and its partners over the next five years will conduct the program in one non-metro and one metro region per year. As one of just six states to receive CDC biomonitoring grants, the Minnesota effort will partner with Minneapolis Public Schools, Rochester Public Schools, Olmsted County Public Health, and Fillmore County Public Health.

Participants may wait a year for their results, while communities could wait one year as well with a final statewide report requiring five years. For more information about how to participate, visit the Healthy Kids Minnesota website at https://www.health.state.mn.us/.