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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

Agency-Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health-Baltimore, MD

05/08/1998
Carol M. Browner Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health
Baltimore, MD

                           May 8, 1998


     I want to thank Dean Sommer for that kind introduction.   It is a special pleasure to be here with all of you at this very fine institution.

     Johns Hopkins is renowned far beyond the City of Baltimore for its leadership in promoting public health -- and especially for addressing the very important health problems that plague many of our urban communities.

     Our communities are safer today -- thanks to your scientific and medical expertise -- but also thanks to the spirit of activism and passionate concern that you bring to your work.  You are no ivory tower -- you serve the public, day in and day out.  Allow me to offer my most sincere thanks for all that you do here.

     Over the past five years, I've learned that when I speak to certain kinds of audiences, I have to spend a little time explaining what environmental protection is all about.  For some people, when they hear those words, "environmental protection," what comes to mind is protecting the beautiful places -- the idyllic spots -- the place way out in the middle of nowhere where they go to try to get away.  They want to know that that place will always be there.

     And that's fine.  That's an important goal.  But I think most Americans have a deeper understanding of what environmental protection is all about.  And I think here at Hopkins you share that understanding.  You know that environmental protection goes far beyond protecting our natural wonders.  You know that protecting our environment means protecting the places where we live every day.  It means protecting the water that comes out of the tap in the kitchen sink, the air we breathe standing at the bus stop, the food we put on the table, the city lots where our children play.

     In a word, protecting our environment means protecting public health.  And today, I want to talk to you about what the Clinton Administration has done to fundamentally change how we approach this very important mission.  I want to describe very briefly the progress we have made.  And I want to talk a little bit about the challenges that face those of us who are committed to improving the public's health.

     Over the past 25 years, this nation has made great progress in protecting public health and the environment.

     We no longer have rivers catching on fire.  Toxic pollution from industry has declined.  Our skies are cleaner.  

     But the job is not done.  Many of you know all too well that at the end of this century, many public health challenges still remain to be solved, especially in our urban communities.  

     Asthma deaths among children and young people have more than doubled over little more than a decade.  Asthma is now the leading cause of hospital admissions for children.

     Especially in low-income communities, in African-American communities, we have more children than ever before being rushed into the emergency room gasping for breath.  

     Lead poisoning in children is declining, but still, today, nearly a million young children in America suffer high levels of lead in their blood.

     I don't need to convince you that tobacco use among our young people is a public health crisis.  This Administration will continue to take strong action to stop the marketing of this addictive drug to our children.  

     And at EPA we will continue our efforts to inform families of the terrible health consequences of smoking around young children.  One child in four lives in a home where adults smoke.  No adult, no parent, should smoke around a young child.  

     Reported rates of some childhood cancers have increased over the last few decades.  We are very concerned that these increases may be related to environmental factors.

     To meet those challenges, the Clinton Administration is forging a new generation of environmental and public health protection.  We are setting standards that are second to none.  

We are vigorously enforcing those standards.  And we are giving the American people the tools they need to clean up the air, the water, and the land in their own communities.
   
     When I came to EPA, I learned that all too often, this country's environmental standards had been based on the average 154-pound man.  

     How much pesticide exposure was safe for a human being, what  constitutes safe drinking water, how much air pollution was too much -- all of these standards were based on the health effects for that average adult male.  

     And if you asked, Do these standards adequately protect the average woman, the average child?  A pregnant woman?  An elderly person?  -- the answer was simply, We don't know.

     Well -- I happen to be the mother of a growing child.  And I knew from my own experience that children are exposed to very different environmental risks than the average 154-pound man.  Kids crawl around on the floor.  They put things in their mouths.  They'll climb over the fence into the old abandoned factory building. They'll open the refrigerator and drink a quart of juice at one gulp, or devour five bananas at one sitting.

     Proportionate to body weight, they eat more of certain types of food, drink more fluids, and breathe more air than adults do.    
     Their bodies and minds are still developing, which makes them more susceptible than adults to environmental threats.  

     I felt then and I feel now that we have a responsibility not just to protect that average 154-pound man, but to protect those who are most vulnerable in our society.  We have a responsibility to protect our children.  And in so doing, we protect not only the most vulnerable, but all people.  Not only our children, but future generations.  

     I am very, very proud to say that this Administration has made a fundamental change in how we approach health research and the protection of public health.

     Today, when we set safety standards -- for drinking water, for eating fish, for pesticides -- we require that those standards must be adequate to protect not just the 154-pound man but all people, including any group with a special sensitivity.


     We moved beyond the chemical-by-chemical approach of the past.  Today, instead of looking at the chemicals one by one and basing our standards on that individual, isolated investigation, we take a different approach.  We look at the whole person, we are beginning to look at all the risks, all the exposures, the total cumulative risk from all chemical exposures.  

     At EPA, we took aggressive action to ensure that an awareness of children's unique susceptibility would guide every action we take to protect public health and our environment.  Every action we take.

     Last spring, President Clinton directed all federal agencies to make protection of children's health and safety a high priority in all that we do.

     That is a very significant change and a tremendous victory for public health.

     Several months ago, I announced that we would establish National Centers of Excellence on Children's Environmental Health at medical and academic institutions across the country.

     These Centers will support the very best scientific research, the very best clinical work, the very best training for public health providers.

     I know that Johns Hopkins has applied to house one of these Centers.  There has been an enormous interest nationwide in this work and we have received over 30 excellent proposals.  We will be announcing the finalists in a couple of months.

     We are also working to fund a program, based right here at Hopkins, in environmental epidemiology and toxicology.  Its mission will be to examine toxic risks in urban areas and identify populations that are at special risk.  

     Overall, for the next 2 years, we are increasing the funding to protect children's environmental health by two-fold -- number one, so that we can study the problems, seek the truth about what is endangering our children -- but number two, so we can continue to move aggressively to reduce those hazards, based on what we already know.

     The new air quality standards for smog and soot that the President announced last summer represent the most important step this nation has taken in a generation to protect the American people from air pollution.

     These standards will protect 125 million Americans, including 35 million children, from the adverse health effects of breathing polluted air.  Each year, these standards will prevent approximately 15,000 premature deaths, about 350,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and nearly a million cases of significantly decreased lung function in children.

     Simple common sense tells us that no child should have to grow up near a toxic waste dump.

     This Administration has cleaned up more Superfund toxic waste sites in the last four years than in the previous 12-year history of the program.  In the next four years, we will double the pace of clean-ups.  

     We set tough standards to keep pollution out of our rivers, lakes, beaches, and streams; tough standards to protect our drinking water; tough standards to protect the quality of our food by outlawing dangerous pesticides.  

     We reduced toxic pollution from chemical plants by nearly 90 percent.  We took aggressive action against the burning of medical waste and other hazardous waste -- controlling 90% of the known sources of dioxin that accumulates in human tissue and in breast milk.  

     This is real public health protection, a real investment in the health of all Americans, and I am truly proud to be part of these important steps into the future.

     Finally, I want to mention what is perhaps the most important step that this Administration has taken to improve public health.  And that is to expand the public's right to know.

     Not long ago, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of women in South Baltimore.  It was truly one of the most inspiring experiences I've had since coming to EPA.

     These women live in one of Baltimore's most heavily industrialized areas.  Their next-door neighbors are steel companies, chemical companies, oil companies.  Twenty years ago, they were the mothers of young children.  And they became deeply concerned when they heard a rumor that one particular company was planning to deposit toxic waste right in their neighborhood.

     They were scared -- and they had every right to be scared.  They were determined to stop what they believed would be a serious danger to their families, their children.  But without


the right to any information whatsoever, it was nearly impossible for these women to take any effective action.  They were operating in the dark.

     Then, in 1986, the Community Right to Know Law was passed.  This country began to require that industrial facilities report to their communities about the toxic chemicals they were releasing into the environment.  And that one simple requirement had an enormous effect on these women's lives.

     Now they had information about exactly what chemicals were being released into their community.  And armed with that information, they were able to sit down and negotiate with the steel companies, the chemical companies, the oil companies.  To this day, they meet on a regular basis with the executives of these companies.  

     And in the years since these women began to use that powerful tool, the Right to Know -- the chemical companies in their neighborhood have reduced their toxic releases by 74 percent.  

     And that story has repeated itself in community after community.  Across this country, among facilities required to report to the public -- even though our economy has grown tremendously -- toxic emissions have gone down by almost half.

     Under the leadership of President Clinton, this Administration has expanded the Right to Know.  We doubled the number of chemicals that must be reported.  We increased by 30 percent the number of facilities that have to report.

     And two weeks ago, on Earth Day, I was honored to join Vice President Gore in announcing yet another major expansion of the Right to Know.  For the first time, we will now require basic public health testing for the 3,000 chemicals that are most widely used in this country.  We will require reporting about the persistent toxic chemicals that build up in human tissue and in breast milk.  And we will direct special attention to those chemicals that children are most likely to encounter.    

     And I am very proud of that action, because it gives our communities a new set of powerful tools that they can use to rid their neighborhoods of toxic pollution.  And that is one more important step toward a healthier future.



     Unfortunately, there are those in Congress, those in industry, who want to roll back public health and environmental protection.

     The Senate Republicans recently passed a budget resolution that would slash funding for key public health and environmental initiatives, such as the President's commitment to invest in new technologies that will help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions leading to global warming.  House Republicans recently passed legislation to weaken penalties for companies that violate environmental laws.  

     We're seeing proposals in Congress to roll back the clean air standards.  Proposals to put cost considerations before public health.

     Throughout the history of public health and environmental protection, there have always been naysayers.  In the face of every effort -- to clean up our air, to clean up our water, to dispose safely of our sewage, to ban dangerous chemicals -- in every case, there has been opposition; there have been dire predictions of economic ruin.  

     But not one of those predictions has ever come to pass.  Not one.  Today we have the strongest protections in history -- and we have the strongest economy in a generation.

     And so, if there is one thing I want to convey to every one of you, it is that all of us who are committed to protecting the public's health must continue to stand together and stand tall.  

     As public health providers, you have a critical role to play.  The people of this country are counting on you to continue to seek the truth about environmental health hazards -- to perform research, to train others, to teach, to speak up and to speak out as advocates for improved public health for all.

     Let me assure you that this Administration is ready to walk that next mile with you toward a brighter, safer, healthier future for all our communities.

     Once again, I thank you for all you do each and every day for the public's health.