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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the American Public Health Association, As Prepared

11/08/2009
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you for inviting me. It's a privilege to speak to you today. This as an amazing opportunity for us to meet and discuss our shared interests. A major part of our work in the last year has focused on changing the broader conversation on environmentalism.

In part, that means reaching out to historically under-represented groups in the environmental movement - minorities and low-income communities. This is a challenge the public health community shares with the environmental community. We both seek to reach people who are deeply affected by the issues we work on. People who are in great need of the work we do - but who have little voice in the conversations about how we do that work.

But another part of what I mean when I say "expanding the conversation on environmentalism" is changing the way we think about environmental issues. It means changing the conversation to show how things like climate change and water pollution are real in people's lives. And that's what I want to talk to you about today.

When we talk about environmentalism, it typically brings to mind sweeping vistas and wide-open landscapes. Most people think of saving the whales, protecting spotted owls, or preserving old-growth forests. Those things are important. But they only make up part of the story.

When the environmental movement really got its start in the 1960s, it started in our nation's cities. It started with people concerned about pollution in the air they were breathing and the water they were drinking, and the chemicals on the foods they were eating. In short, environmentalism started because of concerns about public health.

Environmental protection is about human protection. It's about family protection and community protection. It's about safeguarding people in the places where they live, work, play, and learn. Environmental protection is public health protection.

Now, you may not think of yourself as an environmentalist. You may think that is someone who drives a hybrid car, or has a compost pile in the backyard. You may not be up at night worrying about climate change.

But if you've ever treated a patient with asthma, and warned them about high ozone levels on hot days - that is environmental protection. If you've counseled a pregnant mother that certain chemicals in the environment have been linked to developmental disabilities - that is environmental protection. If you've ever written a paper about lead in water, or talked about how climate effects the movement of diseases, or researched the connections between bio-accumulative chemicals and cancer - that's environmental protection.

As far as I'm concerned, you are some of the most active environmentalists out there. And let me tell you: we need you to be.

We need you because of heart disease, cancer and respiratory illness. These are three of the top four most fatal health threats in America. They account for more than half of the deaths in the nation. And all three have been linked to environmental causes.

We need you because of the asthma that affects nearly 23 million people in the United States. Both children and adults with asthma make nearly 17 million doctor's office and hospital visits each year. Almost 2 million people go to the emergency room every year and more than 400,000 are hospitalized with extreme cases. The average inpatient stay lasts three days. Across the US, almost 1 in every 10 kids has asthma - making this a critical children's health issue.

One of those children is my 12-year-old son Brian. Brian has fought with asthma his entire life. His first Christmas was spent in the hospital, unable to breathe. All his life we have had to be careful when it gets too hot outside, and the ozone levels rise, or when other environmental triggers are present. My family can't take for granted that Brian's going to be able to breathe easy. I still pop up at night when I hear him stirring, and expect to hear the cough.

Which brings me to the next reason we need you: Children's health is one of my top agenda items. I need you on the front lines with me and my colleagues at EPA. Michelle Obama came to visit EPA earlier this year, and she told us that "the health and safety of our children is our top priority." One of the places we have been most active is in addressing the environmental issues around our schools.

Earlier this year, EPA initiated a program to monitor air quality around some of the nation's public schools. That was in response to a USA Today story about high levels of particulate matter in the air around the places where our kids go to learn. When USA Today published the story, parents all across the nation read about the dangerous air around schools. They read how children absorb toxic pollutants in the same quantities as adults - meaning they get a much higher dose of toxics for their body weight. They read about how children are more vulnerable to asthma and other respiratory illnesses - and more susceptible to long-term complications that will be with them all their lives.

Then they sent their kids to school, wondering if they were putting them in harm's way.

We need you by our side because environmental health challenges don't travel alone. Those areas where the concentrations of asthma are highest are often the same places where other respiratory diseases, cancer, and other illnesses are found. A recent study found that exposure to airborne soot pollution - itself a major cause of asthma - almost doubles a person's likelihood of dying from heart disease .

But it goes beyond that. There are a whole host of other challenges.

If our students are getting sick because we've built schools in polluted areas, they are going to fall behind. The poor who get sick because of toxins in their neighborhoods are the same people who typically seek treatment in emergency rooms. That drives up health care costs for everyone. And environmental health issues hold back economic growth. Let me repeat that, because there are a lot of people who think that we can't address these issues and strengthen our economy. In fact, we must address these issues to strengthen our economy. Environmental health issues hold back economic growth.

There is a cost to businesses in lost productivity from employees calling in sick, or staying home with a sick child. There are costs to small businesses that pay higher health insurance premiums because their workers are at greater risk of chronic diseases caused by pollution in their community. When environmental degradation keeps businesses from investing, economic possibilities are limited. As a result, crime and violence are higher, often drug use is rampant, and the vicious cycle continues. What have we taught our young people (like my two teenaged sons) to value, aspire to, or take pride in when they see that their communities are unclean, unhealthy and unsafe - and that the people around them seem unconcerned?

Finally, we need you to stand with us on the aggressive, health-based environmental items on our agenda. I want to spend a little time on one of those issues - something we have established as a top priority: reforming chemical management in America.

Everything from our cars, to the cell phones we all have in our pockets are constructed with plastics and chemical additives. The technological revolution that my two sons take for granted has made chemicals ubiquitous in our economy and products - as well as our environment and our bodies. The Environmental Working Group has provided some startling research showing that our kids are getting steady infusions of industrial chemicals before we even give them solid food. Now, we know some chemicals may be risk-free at the levels we are seeing. But as more and more chemicals are found in our bodies and the environment, the public is understandably anxious and confused.

We are stepping up to provide them with assurance.

I recently announced a set of core principles to guide changes to the 30-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. Not only has TSCA fallen behind the industry it's supposed to regulate - it's been proven an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects. EPA's authority to require information and testing is limited - and rife with obstacles even in the places where we are authorized to act. Since 1976, EPA has issued regulations to control only five existing chemicals determined to present an unreasonable risk. Five from a total universe of almost 80,000 existing chemicals. In 1989, a court overturned EPA's rules on asbestos because - despite clear evidence of risk - the rules failed to clear the many hurdles for action under TSCA.

We know far too little about new chemicals coming into the market. And as states and other countries take action, manufacturers have far too little certainty on how they will be regulated. Senator Lautenberg, Chairman Waxman, Senator Boxer, Congressman Rush and others have already recognized that TSCA must be updated and strengthened. They are now working on reforms and - I should add - looking to their advocates in public health to work with them.

To make sure EPA has the tools we need, I have established six principles to guide reform efforts:

First, we need to review all chemicals against safety standards that are based on considerations of risk.

Second, safety standards can't be applied without adequate information, and responsibility for providing that information should rest on industry. Manufacturers must develop and submit the data demonstrating that new and existing chemicals are safe. If industry doesn't provide the information, EPA should have the tools to quickly and efficiently require testing, without the delays and procedural obstacles currently in place.

Third, both EPA and industry must include special consideration for exposures and effects on groups with higher vulnerabilities - particularly children. As you know, children ingest chemicals at a higher ratio to their body weight than adults. They are more susceptible to long-term damage and developmental problems.

Fourth, when chemicals fall short of the safety standard, EPA must have clear authority to take action. We need flexibility to consider a range of factors - but must also have the ability to move quickly. In all cases, EPA and chemical producers must act on priority chemicals in a timely manner, with firm deadlines to maintain accountability. This will not only assure prompt protection of health and the environment, but provide business with the certainly that it needs for planning and investment.

Fifth, we must encourage innovation in green chemistry, and support research, education, recognition, and other strategies that will lead us down the road to safer and more sustainable chemicals and processes. All of this must happen with the utmost transparency and concern for the public's right to know.

Finally, we need to make sure that EPA's safety assessments are properly resourced, with industry contributing its fair share of the costs of implementing new requirements.

TSCA reform is just one of the items on our list.

There are great debates going on right now about Public Health and the Environment. As leaders on these issues, we have an opportunity to shape the debates - and the future of these issues. My challenge to you today is to join us in opening up this conversation.

Help us make clear to all Americans that, when we announced our clean cars program to raise vehicle fuel efficiency and lower greenhouse gas emissions - that was more than an environmental announcement. It also means less harmful pollution that sends people to the hospital with asthma, heart disease, and any number of other conditions.

Help us send the message that, when Public Health officials talk about the expanding range of disease vectors, or the migration of Lyme disease or malaria into new areas - it is a public health issue and it is a climate change issue.

Doing a better job of bringing our work together will head off a number of public health challenges before they happen. Environmentalism can be an "ounce of prevention" that can make a huge difference in our nation's public health efforts. We can make that happen if we draw a clearer line between these two critical issues. If we broaden the conversations on environmentalism and public health. I'm glad to be here to be part of that process. I look forward to working with you in the years ahead.

Thank you.