This is an interview with Dr. Gredia Huerta Montanez, an environmental health pediatrician in Puerto Rico and a member of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee:
Dr. Huerta Montanez, can you please tell us about the work you do as an environmental health pediatrician?
I’m working as co-principal of the PROTECT,CRECE,ZIP projects. Since 2010, our interdisciplinary research team has been conducting a study of a cohort of 1800 pregnant women in Puerto Rico to investigate links between exposure to groundwater contamination and the unusually high preterm birth rate on the island of Puerto Rico.
I work on recruiting families into the study and I conduct pediatric exams for the babies and kids in these programs.
This collaboration is a win-win for the government and schools. The school gets a complimentary needs assessment to see what pests are a problem. The idea is to use more physical barriers to keep out pests, and to eliminate the conditions that support pests. If you eliminate the food and water sources the bugs will look elsewhere, not in your house or school.
Sadly, there are times in Puerto Rico when pesticide is used in a school while kids are in the building. This is dangerous and unnecessary. If pesticide must be used it should be used in a way that limits children’s exposure, like at the beginning of a weekend.
How has hurricane Maria impacted your work and your community?
The hurricane was terrible, but the difficulty of recovering from it is largely due to the poor conditions before the hurricane. There are 18 Superfund sites in Puerto Rico, there are serious economic problems, problems with landfills, the list goes on. Handling disaster relief in impoverished and polluted communities poses many extra difficulties. We were all victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, but those of us from underserved families don’t have the means to confront these challenges. So just like with Zika, this is an opportunity to consider the needs of our neighbors, of the whole community, and to focus on resiliency – being ready to meet future challenges.
The hurricane and Zika outbreaks were both opportunities to think of other people, and to improve Puerto Rico for the future. Those of us who aren’t pregnant experience a Zika infection as a very mild event – most infected people are asymptomatic. But we all have to do our part to control the mosquito population so that babies in our community won’t be impacted.
As a family, the hurricane experience brought us together, and helped us focus on our values. We were given the opportunity to relocate the week after the hurricane, but as a family we all agreed it was important for us to stay. We agreed it was an opportunity to get out of our comfort zone and help others. My kids are teens, so they are very capable of helping with the recovery. My son Ricardo let me know that this experience made him feel grateful for what he has and that he could help others during this time.
Staying was a call to serve, and that’s environmental health – being of use to our whole community. We distributed water filters with Ricardo’s school. As a family we saw suffering and success stories. It’s a privilege to help others first hand. My son began collecting and distributing early literacy books for kids on other parts of the island of Puerto Rico.
Can you explain the connection between climate change and diseases like Zika?
Because of the warming climate the distribution of pests like mosquitoes increases-, which means you, find a species over a wider area of land. Also, the life cycle of the Egypti mosquitoes that carry diseases like Zika is actually shortening. All of this leads to more mosquitoes and more mosquitos borne illness. In the case of Puerto Rico it’s hard to say what has happened with mosquito populations since the hurricane. Some people thought that the hurricane disrupted the population and it had decreased, but recent surveillance actually shows that we have lots of mosquitoes. Overall, climate change is exacerbating environmental health concerns because of changes in populations of disease carrying pests like mosquitoes, and also because it causes natural disasters like hurricanes to be more intense and more frequent.
What can parents do to advance awareness?
First, it’s important to learn about how our environment impacts the health of ourselves and our kids. And when I talk about the environment in this way I don’t just mean chemical spills – it’s our social environment, and everything we interact with. There are many great resources online to help with this learning.
We also need to share what we learn with our elected officials. Voting isn’t enough – we need to educate them about the needs in our community. In 2014 another parent and I went to the Puerto Rican legislature to share information about integrated pest management with them, as concerned parents. It didn’t really make a big impact so we will go back again. Speaking up one time isn’t really effective most of the time — it takes persistence to help our elected officials learn about our concerns regarding our children’s health and find the will to act on these concerns. Also, when we collaborate with our elected officials we are showing our kids the power of advocacy to improve our communities.
How can parents make sure the EPA and federal policies are protecting their kids?
As parents we know what kids need, we have to help the government understand what is important to our families. It’s a duty for parents to raise a voice in a science-based manner. We need to ask questions of federal leaders. One way to frame these questions is to say, “We think this policy impacts kids. Can you help us understand what the impact will be?” And go from there. We have to teach our kids to speak up for themselves by modeling this in our engagement with government policies.