UTRGV, EPA and others host symposium to address environmental health for children

Dr. Leonel Vela, UTRGV School of Medicine senior associate dean for Education and Academic Affairs, welcomed participants, including city of Brownsville officials and healthcare providers, to the Children’s Environmental Health Symposium on Aug. 26, 2016, at the UTRGV Brownsville Campus. The Symposium was held in collaboration with the EPA, the U.S.-Mexico Border 2020 Program, and the White House’s “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” initiative, to address environmental factors that contribute to children’s health in the Rio Grande Valley. (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)

By Vicky Brito

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – AUG. 29, 2016 – The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S.-Mexico Border 2020 Program and the White House’s “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” (SC2) initiative, recently hosted the Children’s Environmental Health Symposium to address environmental factors that contribute to children’s health in the Rio Grande Valley.

The event was held Thursday, Aug. 26, at the PlainsCapital El Gran Salón on the UTRGV Brownsville Campus.

Opening remarks were by Dr. Leonel Vela, UTRGV School of Medicine senior associate dean for Education and Academic Affairs, and Ron Curry, EPA Region 6 administrator.

“I, like many of you, was born and raised in the Valley,” Vela said. “And I very much appreciate the importance of this meeting, at this time, when environmental issues continue to play a very significant role on the border.”

Vela said the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that environmental factors can affect the health of children. Additionally, nationwide, medical education in environmental health is limited.

“There is a critical importance to educate physicians in the next generation of healthcare providers in this very important area,” he said.

While risks are everywhere and could affect all children, he said, our location on the border makes young people more vulnerable.

“The border is hard to understand until you’ve walked it,” Vela said.

City of Brownsville Director of Public Health Arturo Rodriguez attended on behalf of Mayor Tony Martinez and the city commissioners.

“In Brownsville, we are working to improve public health, but it is a challenge,” Rodriguez said. “We cannot do it single handedly; we need to work collaboratively. And the city of Brownsville works to stand with public health.”
Dr. Stephen W. Borron, professor of Emergency Medicine, Occupational Medicine and Medical Toxicology at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine at Texas Tech University in El Paso, gave a presentation entitled “Pediatric Environmental Health: What is it? Why does it matter?” 

Borron defined pediatric environmental health as the “prevention of illness due to preconception, prenatal, perinatal, childhood and adolescent exposures to environmental hazards.”

“If we provide a healthy environment for children from the beginning, they are more likely to grow up healthy and have fewer health problems,” he said. “Rather than thinking about getting rid of things, we need to think about how we can make things better across the spectrum of environmental exposures and environmental hazards to children.”

He then presented an A-to-Z list of environmental factors that could affect small children, ranging from air quality to the Zika virus.
Gredia Huerta-Montanez, member of the EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, spoke about Zika.

“Zika was discovered in 1947, so it isn’t new,” Huerta-Montanez said.

Zika virus made headlines in February 2015 when the WHO declared it a global health crisis.

The symposium, presented in English and Spanish, provided networking opportunities for participants and insights into additional resources and organizations available.

In the afternoon, participants split off into different tracks to listen to presentations on a variety of health topics, including the environmental effects of leukemia, fracking, diabetes and obesity, vector-borne diseases, asthma, pesticides, tobacco, prenatal exposures and environmental justice.

Dr. Sarah Williams-Blangero, director of the UTRGV South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute, spoke about the environmental factors that play a risk in diabetes and obesity – two of the most pressing health issues facing the South Texas region.

“The issues surrounding diabetes are acute in the Rio Grande Valley, where 76,000 people have diabetes and the prevalence of the disease is one of the highest in the country. It takes an economic toll, with diabetes-related health costing about $720 million a year,” Williams-Blangero said.

The event was supported by academic and health initiatives, including the Texas A&M University Colonias Program and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center – El Paso.

Curry, of EPA Region 6, said protecting children’s health is one of EPA’s most important priorities, “a goal that factors into nearly all our decisions.”

“We are so pleased to have UTRGV and our other partners help bring together and educate people who share this goal,” he said.

UTRGV Informational Writer / 956-882-4330

UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications / 956-665-2742