What we’re working on:
a look into labs of the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Centers

Does exposure to commercial pesticides increase the risk of spontaneous preterm birth?
Dr. Gary Shaw is heading up the largest study ever on the topic to find out.

We’ve long known that pollutants in our air and water have a damaging effect on our health, particularly that of our children, both born and yet to be born. In fact, the link between birth defects and environmental contaminants is well documented, and a good bit of that work was pioneered by Dr. Gary Shaw, one of the world’s foremost epidemiologists focused on this area. Dr. Shaw is an expert at designing and fielding studies characterized by both their academic breadth and depth: large sample sizes based on specific populations, precise geo-targeting of the participants’ proximal exposures, a thorough documentation of the exposures over an extended timeline and results that bring about real change.

Dr. Shaw’s research needs to be comprehensive, considering the extreme variability in every aspect of the field. Individual behavior and genetic makeup, the multitude of exposures and the variance in their severity, duration, location and particular chemical involved, all need to be taken into account over varying periods of times until the effects show themselves.

For the last few years, Dr. Shaw and his team have been exploring the link between environmental contaminants and preterm birth. His early work in this area was documented in our first newsletter in 2015. The study showed the significant link between the exposure to air pollution in late pregnancy and an increase in early preterm birth. These findings have since been supported by current research.

Dr. Shaw’s most recent work is his most ambitious. As the largest study of its kind, the field seeks to assess the effects of maternal exposure to more than 500 pesticide compounds, on more than 300,000 births, in the San Joaquin Valley over a 14-year period beginning in 1998, broken up into 4-week time periods.

“One of the things we’re trying to determine,” said Dr. Shaw, “is whether there is a particular time during gestation when chemical exposure increases the risk of preterm birth. By looking at data over more granular time periods, we hope to see if such a pattern exists.”

This will be the first study to examine the link between preterm birth and prolonged exposure to pesticide applications. But as one of the CoPI’s at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University, Dr. Shaw’s work will, of course, inform and be integrated into the work of other researchers, who are also producing groundbreaking work, thanks to our transdisciplinary approach. That’s how we’ll find the answers to the mysteries of prematurity.