EPA Working to Help Children in Puerto Rico Breathe Free

Gina McCarthy Gina McCarthy

May is Asthma Awareness Month and I took the opportunity to spend part of the month traveling to several cities where asthma is a problem to raise awareness about this serious childhood illness and the importance of asthma intervention and education.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, I visited the St. Jorge Children’s Hospital and met asthmatic children, their parents and doctors and health professionals who are working to better understand the illness and ways to reduce its incidence. They spoke from experience about the often devastating effects of the illness on people’s lives – family concern and disruption, increased medical expenses and lost days of school and work.

The EPA has actively engaged in asthma reduction efforts in Puerto Rico since the 1990s when the agency funded a study that looked at asthma and indoor air quality. The study found that measurable improvements could be made in reducing emergency room visits and missed days of school through asthma education and intervention. Since 2005, the EPA has focused on training health care providers, educators and parents about asthma triggers. The EPA Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program has reached 92,000 students and faculty in 431 schools in Puerto Rico. The results have been a 50 percent reduction in missed school days and a 50 percent improvement in symptom-free days.

I also toured one of the eight communities along San Juan’s Martin Peña Canal where a health impact assessment by the federally funded Pediatric Health Specialty Unit at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York recently revealed that the asthma rate for children under five in this community is twice that of the same group throughout the rest of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans overall have the highest asthma rate of any other ethnic group and an estimated 15.6 percent of Puerto Rican children suffer from asthma compared to just over 9 percent across the U.S. In addition, asthma is the main cause for the hospitalization of children in Puerto Rico and it is among the five most common causes of doctor visits.

Environmental conditions in the communities surrounding the 3.75 mile long Martin Peña Canal are contributing to the high incidence of asthma. Polluted floodwaters and damp conditions bring mold and pests, which exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions Rising sea levels and more intense storms resulting from climate change will only make the flooding worse. Household pest killers and certain cleaning products further contribute to the problem. These facts make it critically important to reduce flooding in the Martin Peña Canal communities and to educate families about the environmental factors that trigger asthma attacks and actions they can take to reduce them. EPA has been working closely with federal and Puerto Rico government agencies and the community-based organization, “Corporacion del Proyecto ENLACE del Cano Martin Peña,” to reduce the flooding. EPA has supported the communities through the Urban Waters Federal Partnership and various environmental justice, environmental education, water quality and wastewater infrastructure projects.

The worried faces of parents at the St. Jorge Children’s Hospital make it clear that we must find effective ways to reduce the high incidence of asthma, especially with climate change threatening to make the situation worse. But, I will not forget the smiling faces of the children who greeted me during a tour of the Martin Peña Canal. They give me the energy and inspiration to create a healthier world.

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