EPA Provides $100,000 to Help Assess Need for Children's Health Center in Puerto Rico

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced $100,000 in funding to assess the need for a new, independent Children’s Environmental Health Center in Puerto Rico. The news was announced by EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck at a meeting of public health and medical professionals at the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus in San Juan. In addition, Ms. Enck will participate in the Puerto Rico Children’s Environmental Health Conference, which will take place tomorrow at the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico’s Amphitheater. The health conference is open to the public and will address topics such as Lead Exposure among Children associated with a Battery Recycling Company, the Burden of Childhood Asthma in Puerto Rico, and Assessing Environmental Exposure in Pregnancy.

“There is no doubt that pollution in the air, land and water leads to children’s health problems,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “Puerto Rico faces many environmental challenges and their effects on children need to be better understood and addressed or acted upon. The EPA funding will help children’s health professionals take a closer look at the island’s environmental problems and the service gaps that could be filled by an environmental health center in Puerto Rico.”

“Chronic diseases in our children are rising sharply. Asthma has more than doubled. Incidence of childhood cancer has increased by 40%. Autism now affects 1 in 88 American children. Obesity has tripled. The evidence is strong and continuing to build that harmful exposures in the environment are contributing to these diseases. A new Center of Excellence in Children’s Environmental Health in Puerto Rico will provide a place for scientific discovery of the causes of these diseases. It will be a center for education of doctors, nurses and the public. It will be a base for the prevention of environmental disease in children. It is an idea whose time has come,” said Philip J. Landrigan, MD, Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

“This is an important partnership between the EPA, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and the Medical Sciences Campus that will allow us in Puerto Rico to focus on the challenges of environmental exposures that impact our children and our families and find solutions to address them," said Dr. Rafael Rodriguez Mercado, Chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus.

"Bringing together the multiple sectors of our community, from community organizations, the private sector, local government agencies, and academia we can begin to work together towards developing a resource center that will improve our ability to address the many children's environmental issues we face in Puerto Rico," said Dr. Jose F Cordero, Dean of the UPR School of Public Health.

“Taking the time to assess the need for the establishment of an environmental health center focused on children’s issues protects the future of a nation. Children are uniquely vulnerable to environmental contaminants, and steps to increase understanding about how to deal with these risks in children will ultimately strengthen our national and international health, safety, and security. The children of Puerto Rico are fortunate to have a strong team of partners led by the University of Puerto Rico and Mount Sinai Medical Center,” said Tina Forrester, PhD, Acting Director of the Division of Community Health Investigation, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

There are many environmental health issues that need attention in Puerto Rico and their impacts are especially important in children. The island has the highest asthma rate in the nation. There are serious problems with drinking water quality and sewage disposal. Lead, asbestos and pesticides pose special risks to children. Children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults per part of body weight. This higher rate of intake results in greater exposure to pathogens and pollutants and makes children uniquely vulnerable to environmental toxins. In addition, children’s body systems are still developing, often compromising their ability to handle toxic substances.

Most health care professionals are not trained to deal with environmentally-related conditions, especially in children. This information is often best delivered by trained health care professionals. A Children’s Environmental Health Center would address many of these health care needs.

Through the funding, the Mount Sinai Medical Center and the University of Puerto Rico will work together with a number of Commonwealth organizations, community groups and universities, as well as other federal agencies including the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to explore interest in and the feasibility of establishing a Children’s Environmental Health Center in Puerto Rico. The University of Puerto Rico together with a team of institutions currently has a major federal grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health to define the role that environmental contamination may play in the high level of pre-term births in Puerto Rico.

The University of Puerto Rico and Mt. Sinai will obtain input from local health care providers, community based organizations, physicians, scientists, educators, elected officials, businesses and government agencies to prioritize environmental health issues, identify actions needed and identify potential community partners. They will help assess resources and evaluate critical needs for clinical consultations, educational training, community outreach and research needs.

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