Promoting Healthy Environments for All: Maida Galvez, MD, MPH

Dr. Maida Galvez devotes her clinical, research and advocacy work to promoting healthy environments for all children and families. As a pediatrician and professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health and the Department of Pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, she embodies humanity in medicine and community health. 

We met with Dr. Galvez to discuss her career and her reflections on motherhood. She speaks with humor and humility on the importance of connection through all aspects of her life.

What sparked your interest in medicine, and what moved you to choose environmental pediatrics? 

When I was looking for a career path, I was really interested in a combination of things: teaching, social work, and medicine. My underlying goal was, “how could I carve a career path that is focused on helping people?

Through my early college years I learned about a man named Dr. H. Jack Geiger who worked in the South and founded what is now known as community-oriented primary care. When he was working with communities that were malnourished he prescribed food to those families. This is now more commonly referred to as “social determinants of health.” Today we want to do all we can to promote healthy lives and healthy communities, but he was doing it in a way that was pretty far-reaching back then, in the 1950s in the Deep South. 

Learning from public health leaders like him showed me how to think broadly about what can be done to promote health while centering community members as partners through the lens of Environmental Health. Very broadly defined, Environmental Health is everything in your environment from your home and your workplace to your school to your community to your social stressors, and other factors. That’s very much rooted in general pediatrics, and I still love the little bit of general pediatrics that I do. 

Can you tell us more about your work integrating Environmental Health and medicine?

With an amazing group of folks at Mount Sinai, we’re integrating Environmental Health into routine wellness talk. We identify housing concerns for families and connect them to the healthy home interventions that they need as part of their well-child care. Essentially, what we’re doing is prescribing healthy homes for all families. 

This is especially important for children with asthma who may have frequent ED visits, have severe asthma that keeps them out of school, or are on many medications. From the parents’ perspective, this could mean missed work days. Yet these children go home to environments where those triggers are still present. We’re working to make sure that those triggers are addressed. We also celebrate Children’s Environmental Health Day every year to raise awareness of children’s environmental health. An amazing thing about this field is that the youth are super excited about this work and all that needs to be done, and they are very vocal about it. 

At the end of the day, we’re really underscoring the fact that many families we serve live in substandard housing, and that is never addressed. Those families return again and again to housing that’s a source of toxic stress. The home should be a refuge, but in many cases, it’s not. It’s a place that is a trigger for some of their symptoms, whether they have asthma, allergies or other irritant-type symptoms, or lead poisoning. These are the issues that we’re addressing through our NYSCHECK Network, and we’re scaling our services to try to better serve more families and further build our network across the state, reaching families in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Increasingly, there has been more environmental health content providing quick answers for families. I think this helps families understand what they can do about an environmental exposure and how to prevent and reduce those exposures moving forward. 

How has being a mother made you a better physician? Are there some lessons that surprised you about motherhood that tie back to environmental health? 

Absolutely. I think that my involvement in research and environmental health brought a heightened awareness of the sort of things I could do in pregnancy to prevent and reduce exposures. Even before I was pregnant, I was involved in some of the early research around phthalates, BPA, and endocrine disruptors. 

I think what being a mother led to for me was fully recognizing that when we as clinicians talk to families, they are prepared to be scared or anticipate hearing something they didn’t know about that may have caused their child harm—that they were a part of that. When we’re talking to families, we always let them know that we’re here to talk about what they can do moving forward to prevent and reduce exposure and not to look back. There’s a big difference there. That’s sort of how I tried to stay sane during my own pregnancy knowing everything that I knew. I would say, ‘There are things that are within my control, and there are very simple steps that I can take to prevent and reduce exposures.”

In motherhood, what you realize is how even the simple things are hard. What I say to all the families that I see in clinic is to focus on really basic things like eating enough fruits and vegetables, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, exercising, reducing stress, and reducing screen time. Those are some of the major components of living a healthy life, and most of us aren’t checking all those boxes. 

I have a hard time checking those boxes too, and I tell families that I have to work on trying to achieve some or most of those items. Talking about this with patients helps me remember to focus on these important elements. Being a mother has helped me recognize that some of those behavioral tasks such as getting enough sleep or eating enough fruits and vegetables can be hard and prompts me to think about how I can make this checklist really simple for families. 

More Information on NYSCHECK and Dr. Galvez’s Work in Environmental Health 

Dr. Galvez is a Founding Director of the New York State Children’s Environmental Health Center (NYSCHECK)—the first state-wide, publicly funded model for children’s environmental health clinical services in the United States. Her many accolades include the 2016 Region 2 EPA Environmental Champion Award and the 2017 Science Champion Award from Clean and Healthy. In 2023, she was appointed to the New York City Board of Health. 

As Director of Community Engagement for both the NIEHS-funded Mount Sinai Center for Health Across the Lifespan (HEALS) and NIH-funded Clinical Translational Science Award (CTSA) Program at Mount Sinai Conduits, Dr. Galvez translates emerging research into programs and policies that prevent and reduce environmental exposures. 

Dr. Galvez previously served on the EPA’s federal advisory board for the Office of Children’s Health Protection, is a past president of District 2 Chapter 3 American Academy of Pediatrics, and is a current member of the CDC/American Public Health Association National Environmental Health Partnership Council, the Children’s Environmental Health Network Board, the Clean and Healthy Scientific Advisory Panel, and the New School Parsons Healthy Materials Lab Advisory Committee.


Source Information
Interview with Dr. Maida Galvez, MD, MPH
Published Mar. 21, 2024