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Your Environment. Your Health.

Environmental health outreach in Puerto Rico

Santiago Perez explained plans to dredge and restore the Cano de Martin Pena.
Santiago Perez explained plans to dredge and restore the Cano de Martin Pena. (Photo courtesy of Jed Bullock)

In Catano, from left, Francine Sanchez, AmeriCorps grant director, and Katrina Wiegand, AmeriCorps volunteer, discussed the programs with Rosen and others on the tour.
In Catano, from left, Francine Sanchez, AmeriCorps grant director, and Katrina Wiegand, AmeriCorps volunteer, discussed the programs with Rosen and others on the tour. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

“This was Dr Birnbaum’s 20th community forum and participants were passionate and engaged,” said John Schelp. “San Juan was one of the longest discussion sessions we’ve seen.”
“This was Dr Birnbaum’s 20th community forum and participants were passionate and engaged,” said John Schelp. “San Juan was one of the longest discussion sessions we’ve seen.” (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

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."

(Joseph “Chip” Hughes directs the NIEHS WTP.)

  • With aerial photos, Santiago Perez explained how the Cano narrowed because of years of neglect, as well as sediment and debris buildup.
    With aerial photos, Santiago Perez explained how the Cano narrowed because of years of neglect, as well as sediment and debris buildup. (Photo courtesy of Jed Bullock)
  • At the UPR Medical Campus, which hosts the PROTECT, CRECE, and ZIP labs where samples are processed and sent on for further analysis, Birnbaum spoke with researchers about their work.
    At the UPR Medical Campus, which hosts the PROTECT, CRECE, and ZIP labs where samples are processed and sent on for further analysis, Birnbaum spoke with researchers about their work. (Photo courtesy of Jed Bullock)
  • This community garden provides fresh, healthy food for residents of the Cantera neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
    This community garden provides fresh, healthy food for residents of the Cantera neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of Jed Bullock)
  • From left, Birnbaum, with Sharon Beard and Carolina Medina from WTP, visited the library and community center in the low-income community of Cantera. Created by parents and staffed by AmeriCorps volunteers, it hosts an afterschool program and environmental science camp.
    From left, Birnbaum, with Sharon Beard and Carolina Medina from WTP, visited the library and community center in the low-income community of Cantera. Created by parents and staffed by AmeriCorps volunteers, it hosts an afterschool program and environmental science camp. (Photo courtesy of Jed Bullock)
  • Birnbaum and other members of the tour visited with students in the afterschool center at Casa Educativa de Cantera.
    Birnbaum and other members of the tour visited with students in the afterschool center at Casa Educativa de Cantera. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Panelists at the community forum were, from left, Rivera, Rosario Guerro, Birnbaum, and Velez Vega. Moderator Padin is not shown.
    Panelists at the community forum were, from left, Rivera, Rosario Guerro, Birnbaum, and Velez Vega. Moderator Padin is not shown. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • From right, Ramos, Birnbaum, Carlos Morales, from UMET, and two Cantano residents at the community forum.
    From right, Ramos, Birnbaum, Carlos Morales, from UMET, and two Cantano residents at the community forum. (Photo courtesy of Chip Hughes)