NIEHS sponsored a week of educational, collaboration, and outreach activities in San Juan, Puerto Rico in late March, led by NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Events included a tour of neighborhoods affected by increased flooding, a large town hall meeting on environmental health challenges on the island, and a workshop to explore technologies for training workers who handle hazardous materials, known as hazmat training.
Neighbors respond to flooding, education, other needs
Rutgers University, an NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) grantee, organized site visits along with their partner Universidad Metropolitana (UMET). On March 28, NIEHS staff and grantees visited three communities in San Juan, Puerto Rico — Catano, Cano de Martin Pena, and Cantera — to learn firsthand about local environmental health issues.
Rosa Hilda Ramos explained that Catano faces 65 nearby industries with air emissions and water discharges; diesel exhaust from transportation; coal-fired power plants; and heavy metal contamination in soils and sediments. She said local children experience high rates of asthma.
In Cano de Martin Pena, Estrella Santiago Perez, environmental affairs manager of the Corporacion del Proyecto ENLACE del Cano Martin Pena, told of families living along the Cano, who experience frequent flooding during rain events and have no connection to the sanitary sewer system.
The Cano is a natural tidal channel in the heart of the San Juan Bay Estuary — the only tropical estuary protected as part of the National Estuary Program. Santiago Perez shared aerial photographs showing how the width of the Cano has gradulally narrowed, due to sediment, debris buildup, and neglect.
Ecosystem restoration plans for Cano would return a healthy waterway to approximately 27,000 residents of these communities. With Luis Cintron, a community leader in Cantera, tour participants got to see how some of the canal area will look after dredging, rebuilding the wetlands, and creating buffers.
The tour ended at the Casa Educativa de Cantera, an afterschool program for children. "The smiles on the faces of children in Cantera give us great hope that our continued research and training can make a real difference in reducing environmental hazards for these communities," Birnbaum said. Environmental education and citizen engagement are hallmarks of the eight communities located along the Cano.
Passionate community gathers for forum
More than 100 residents, academics, and agency representatives participated in a community forum at UMET that same evening. Carlos Padin, Ph.D., chancellor of UMET, moderated the presentations and discussion.
Birnbaum and local environmental health experts responded to community questions about coal ash disposal, Zika virus and other infectious diseases, electromagnetic fields, and a range of other public health concerns. Other panelists were Wilma Rivera Diaz, Dr.P.H., environmental health director of the Puerto Rico Department of Health; Osvaldo Rosario, Ph.D., from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR); Carmen Guerrero, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Caribbean Division Director; and Carmen Milagros Velez Vega, Ph.D., from UPR.
In her comments, Birnbaum reflected on the day's tour. "We visited several areas of devastation, and we ended on an uplifting note, at a community center with engaged parents and students," she said.
According to John Schelp, NIEHS special assistant for community engagement and outreach, those who came to the forum were equally engaged. "This was Dr. Birnbaum's 20th community forum, and the question-and-answer session was one of the longest that we've seen."
Worker training workshop
During the following two days, WTP staff, along with grantees from Rutgers University, held a workshop on ways that technology could support the delivery of safety and health training. Approximately 150 grantees and technical experts learned about tools for training in both face-to-face and virtual classrooms.
Virtual classroom training has become a more significant part of delivering effective safety and health training, so presentations focused on enhancing that model. Presenters also shared best practices for transmitting critical environmental health information.
"NIEHS has long been a champion for core values to preserve the role of educators in smart classroom environments through modeling best practices, teaching environmental health, and verifying trainees' skills and knowledge," said Mitchel Rosen, Ph.D., WTP awardee and director of the Rutgers School of Public Health Office of Public Health Practice.
As the week ended, Birnbaum reflected on the discussions and experiences. "Given the natural beauty of the island and the strength of its people, it’s clear that our funding and research programs can assist in reducing health disparities, increasing community resilience, and protecting those at risk from Zika, air pollution, and coal ash."
(Joseph “Chip” Hughes directs the NIEHS WTP.)