Using Ground Zero and its surrounding areas as their Petrie dish, a team of Columbia University researchers have been working around the clock to determine precisely how the attack on the World Trade Center affected pregnant moms and their newborns. And so far, so good, researchers report of their progress. “We are ahead of schedule with more interest from new moms than we would have anticipated,” says researcher Dr. Frederica Perera of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and director of the Columbia Center for Environmental Health. The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health World Trade Center 9/11 Study was launched in December 2001 in order to assess the effects of airborne toxins on pregnant women’s health and that of their babies. Samples of umbilical cord blood and the mothers’ blood and urine have been analyzed for traces of substances such as PCBs, dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, lead, cadmium, and mercury — all of which are believed to have been in the air or dust following the collapse of the Twin Towers and the resulting fires. Interviews were also conducted to assess the mental health and quality of life of the new mothers. A similar group of women, who do not work or live in the area, are serving as controls. What’s more, additional funding will allow the team to follow the babies to age 2 in order to determine the effects of exposure to post-9/11 toxic air on the growth and development of young children. Researchers worked with four major clinics in lower Manhattan — New York University downtown, Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers and its affiliated Elizabeth Seton Birthing Center — to enroll new moms during delivery. “We were contacted by many families and pregnant women who were asking what the potential risks were, and although we knew some things, this was an unprecedented event in many ways,” Dr. Perera says. “There is such concern and we want to address these concerns and provide data with precision. If we provide reassurance in certain aspects or worries and if we were to find some effects with exposures that can be remedied, we will refer women to the appropriate resources [and] we are going to be providing feedback to families on developmental status of children.” Dr. Perera says the study’s organizers originally aimed to enroll 300 women. They actually got 360 women; plus 360 newborns — 17 percent more than anticipated —who the researchers plan to follow until they reach age 2. “Everyone gave birth within a nine-month period, so we finished recruitment in June and now the follow-up is beginning,” Dr. Perera says. Fortunately, she adds, Columbia had the researchers and the infrastructure to address these kind of questions quickly and efficiently. “It is amazing that we got done as much as we have,” says project director Sally Ann Lederman, Ph.D., a special lecturer at the Mailman School of Public Health. “When we first got started, we couldn’t imagine how we would recruit 300 women in labor. Not only were women concerned about exposure willing to be in the study, but so were women who were not in exposed areas because it was such a serious event and they were wondering if it would have any effects.” Ultimately, she says, “we will be able to say how measures of women who were close to the WTC differ from women who were far away.” Elizabeth Sword, executive director of Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC), in Princeton, N.J., says the study could yield new information about the lifelong effects of prenatal exposure. “To me the most interesting piece is that this study will give a discreet look at prenatal exposures to specific environmental pollutants, as well as mixtures of environmental pollutants, because there wasn’t one chemical or pollutant in those buildings — there were many. Prenatal exposures can be the most costly to the child in terms of lifelong compromises in health,” Sword says. CHEC is not affiliated with the study.