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UMass Boston assistant professor of Public Health receives $800K EPA grant

Lorena Estrada-Martinez, an assistant professor of environment and public health in the School for the Environment (SFE), recently received an $800,000 three-year grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a study called “Community Driven Assessment of Environmental Health Risks in Vieques, Puerto Rico.” 

This study arose from the EPA’s request for applications called “Addressing Environmental Concerns in Vieques, Puerto Rico Through Community Participatory Research.” The request specifically wanted a group that would work with the community to study the contamination of “the soil, seas, plant, animal and human population of Vieques” due to the 60-plus years of US military occupation and exercises that included gun fire, bombing, artillery testing, and chemical and biological weapons and potentially left behind materials like lithium, perchlorate, TNT, napalm, and depleted uranium. 

“The situation in Vieques is an environmental and epidemiological puzzle,” said Estrada-Martinez. “Assessments of disease morbidity and mortality clearly point to elevated disease risks as compared to that on Puerto Rico's main island, including higher incidences of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, and neurological diseases. We believe that over 60 years of bombings and military exercises on the island has a lot to do with that.”

Her study will use community-based participatory research (CBPR), a partnership between researchers and the community that ensures everyone is equally involved in sharing knowledge and making decisions so as to better the community overall, to determine where Viequenses spend their time in order to see how exposure to contaminants occurs. It will also develop methods by which the community collects information pertinent to them and works together to solve potential problems, and employ technology that uses plants to clean contaminated soil, air, and water and teach Viequenses how to use them.

“We believe that we will find differences in multiple indicators of exposure to contaminants between the people that developed serious disease and those who did not,” said Estrada-Martinez. “We hope to build sustainable capacity for the people of Vieques to conduct their own assessments and to have a stronger role in protecting their health and community.”

Each of the five principal investigators has a distinct area of focus in Vieques: 

Their work will take them all over the island and into the surrounding sea, as the researchers will take cues from the community rather than specific geographical areas. The team has already started working on the organizational aspects of their project virtually due to COVID-19, and they want to start hosting virtual open community meetings this summer.

“It's certainly an honor for me to work with Viequenses in this way and help provide more information on the relationship between 60-plus years of military exercises and poor health outcomes,” Estrada-Martinez said. “It brings me back to the reasons I chose to study public health in the first place.”