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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Asthma Forum, As Prepared

06/05/2009
As prepared for delivery.

Let me begin by telling you that I am here as both the Administrator of the EPA, and as a parent of a child with asthma. My 12 year old son Brian has fought with this disease his entire life. His first Christmas was spent in the hospital, unable to breathe. Over the years, there have been a countless number of nights when I’ve been awoken by the horrible sounds of his croup. Many nights of getting him out of bed, putting him in a hot shower, then out in the cold air to try and help him breathe.

Our family always travels with Brian’s nebulizer, his masks, and his medications. Still, at times, it has gone beyond anything we could help or prevent on our own. Once, on a visit my mother’s home in New Orleans, we had to get Brian to a hospital because he couldn’t breathe. As you all no doubt know, it’s not just the attacks that are difficult. It’s the fact that Brian can’t be carefree and act the way a kid should be able to act. We have to be extra careful when it’s hot outside or when other environmental triggers are present. My family can’t take for granted that Brian’s going to be able to breathe easy.

Even though his lungs are stronger now that he’s grown up a little, I still wonder about his while he’s at school. I still pop up at night when I hear him stirring, and I’m expecting to hear the croup. So I know how important your work and your support is to the many millions who suffer with asthma. I’m glad to have the chance to express my gratitude.

Asthma is one of the most prevalent – and unique – challenges we face. First and foremost, asthma is a public health issue. It affects nearly 23 million people in the United States. More than a quarter of the 23 million affected are children, a number that has grown at an alarming rate in recent years. Across the US, almost 1 in every 10 kids has asthma – making this a critical children’s health issue.

This is another point where being a mother – especially a mother who has the experience of raising a child with asthma – strengthens my resolve to act. Protecting children’s health was one of the top agenda items I laid out in my very first memo, which I sent to all EPA employees in order to establish the priorities of this administration. It was something that Michelle Obama when she came to visit EPA earlier this year. She told us that “the health and safety of our children is our top priority.” We are hard at work every day on this. And I believe that as we work to confront asthma, children’s health has to be first on our list of priorities.

Now, both children and adults make nearly 17 million doctor’s office and hospital visits to seek treatment for asthma. 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.

In addition to being a public health issue, asthma is also an economic issue. An average $20 co-pay on those 17 million doctor’s office visits amounts to $340 million dollars spent each year. The costs of those inpatient stays are enormous. Every year, asthma causes 13 million missed school days, and 10 million missed work days. As a result, the annual health care and lost productivity costs for asthma are near $20 billion.

We also know that asthma takes an enormous toll in many disadvantaged, low-income, and minority communities. African Americans visit the emergency room for asthma at 350% the average rate that whites do. They are hospitalized at 2.5 times the rate, and have an asthma death rate that is twice as high. The rate of asthma among Puerto Ricans is 125% higher than non-Hispanic white people and 80% higher than non-Hispanic black people.

And many of the people in these hardest hit communities are the same people who, because of their income, can’t afford health insurance. As a result, asthma puts an enormous strain on our health care system, driving up costs for everyone.

Last but not least, asthma is an environmental issue. Higher rates of asthma are a direct result of high levels of particulate matter and other air pollution. We are taking aggressive actions to address those issues. 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.

I saw something similar just this week. I was in Ohio to award $6 million for clean diesel grants – some of which will be invested in cleaner school buses to take the children to school in the morning. At an event in Cincinnati, we did what is called a “handkerchief test,” Someone held a white cloth over the exhaust pipe of the buses as they were running – one on clean diesel, one on conventional. The clean diesel bus left no mark on the cloth. The conventional left a large brown ring. And you could see the looks of concerns on the adults’ faces when they considered that these are the buses we put our kids in every single morning.

We also know that, with regard to environmental threats, asthma does not often 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 study that was written up in the news paper just yesterday found that exposure to airborne soot pollution – itself a major cause of asthma – almost doubles a person’s likelihood of dying from heart disease.

This is a disease that touches entire communities. It requires a community of support, and I want to thank you for leading the way towards real solutions. EPA is committed to working with you. We continue to mobilize through community outreach and education, through national awareness campaigns, through scientific research, and through all of the other work we do to clear the air of harmful pollution. We must also be looking ahead. As I mentioned earlier, the prevalence of asthma – particularly in children – has increased at alarming rates in the last three decades. In the next three decades, how do we reverse that trend? In the years ahead, as some communities see more high ozone days and other environmental triggers because of climate change, what steps can we take to mitigate those challenges? How do we expand our outreach to include parts of the community that may not be directly touched by asthma? How do we show them that their public health, economic, and environmental interests are at stake as well?

We have a long way to go, but with your innovation and hard work we are making progress. You are giving hope to the millions of Americans who battle asthma – including me and my family. Thank you so much. I look forward to working with you.