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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Fourth Annual National Conference on Health Disparities, As Prepared

11/12/2010
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you for having me at your 4th Annual Conference on Health Disparities. I’m honored to be here to discuss such an important topic, and one that is so closely tied to the environment. As many of you know, 2010 marks the 40th year of the Environmental Protection Agency. And even with all of EPA’s successes over the last four decades, health disparities represent some of the unfinished business ahead of us. I’ll touch on that more in a moment – but first, let me say a few words about EPA’s role in the health of the American people.

EPA was formed 40 years ago with a mission to protect the health of the people by safeguarding our environment. We protect the air we breathe, the water that flows through our communities and into our homes and the land where we build those homes, along with schools, businesses and churches. Yet, people often think of EPA as guardians of the great outdoors – the wilderness far from our homes and cities, and the atmosphere high above our heads. Recently, there is a perception that climate change is the only issue we work on. But climate is just the tip of the iceberg – one of the many threats to our health that we deal with on a daily basis.

EPA’s protection of human health is a primary – and often unsung – role for our agency. Before EPA’s creation in 1970, the federal pollution-control authorities that did exist were parts of the Public Health Service. The Public Health Service dealt with air pollution, water pollution and chemicals like pesticides – challenges that had and still have a direct impact on our health and the health of our children. Those responsibilities were largely assigned to EPA 40 years ago. Since then we have made significant progress removing and preventing environmental health threats in the places where Americans live, play, work and learn.

Today, 92 percent of Americans are receiving water that meets national health standards. Six dangerous pollutants in our air have been cut by more than half. Lead pollution alone is down 90 percent. Superfund cleanups are happening at more than 1600 of the most polluted sites in the country. And the environmental laws that EPA enforces have prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and provided the American people with some $22 trillion in health benefits.

What those statistics really mean is that anyone who breathes has benefitted from EPA’s work over the last 40 years. It means that when you drive your kids to school or put them on the bus in the morning, those vehicles no longer spew dangerous lead emissions that can cause serious and lasting damage to their health. It means that when you walk to the sink and pour a glass of water for yourself, you can be confident it will be free of pollution. It means that when you buy an apple at the store, the pesticides are not made with arsenic like they were decades ago. It means that our schools are not built with asbestos…and that today, you can go online and find out about the releases of chemicals in your community – and take action if you need to.

And while we have all benefitted from cleaner air, water and land over the last 40 years, there are far too many communities across the country where work remains to be done. I thank you for recognizing the importance of environmental issues and including them in this discussion about health disparities. Far too often, low-income and minority communities live in the shadows of the worst pollution – and they face some of the harshest consequences.

Heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illnesses like asthma are three of the top four deadliest health threats in America, and all three are linked to environmental causes like smog and air pollution. All three also have an overwhelming impact on minority communities. Nearly 30 million Hispanics – 72 percent of our nation’s Hispanic population – live in places that don’t meet U.S. air pollution standards. Currently, about 2 million Latino’s suffer from asthma – including Puerto Ricans, who have the highest rate of all groups in the US. African Americans visit the emergency room for asthma at 350 percent the average rate that whites do – and die from it twice as often. But asthma is not all. These environmental health threats rarely travel alone.

Areas where asthma rates are highest are often the same places cancer and other illnesses are found. According to a recent study, exposure to airborne soot pollution – itself a major cause of asthma – almost doubles a person's likelihood of dying from heart disease. Mortality rates for cancer are higher for African Americans than for any other group. And heart disease is the most fatal illness in the black community. Or consider the health impacts of pesticide use, which are especially important to Latinos who make up nearly nine in ten farm workers nationwide. Among minority communities, Latino children suffer the nation’s highest rate of leukemia – which has been linked to those same pesticide chemicals.

I think it’s also worth noting the connections between environmental challenges and the many other issues around health disparities. For instance, education. We can talk about our crumbling schools and how we need to rebuild them so our children can learn. But we have to ensure we’re not building those schools in the shadow of polluters that will make our kids sick, that make them miss day after day of class with asthma or other health problems. We can talk about health care costs and how they are out of reach for far too many Americans. That conversation should address the poor who get sick because of exposure to pollution in their air and water. These are often the same people who seek treatment in emergency rooms, driving up health care costs for everyone. And we can talk about the economy. 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 the environmental and strengthen our economy at the same time. The truth is, we must address these issues to strengthen our economy. So I repeat: Environmental health issues hold back economic growth. There are costs to small businesses that pay higher health insurance premiums because their workers are at greater risk of illness. There are costs to employers in lost productivity from employees calling in sick. When environmental degradation keeps businesses from investing, economic possibilities are limited. Jobs are few and far between. As a result, crime and violence can climb higher, often drug use is rampant, and the vicious cycle continues.

Environmental disparities, educational disparities, health disparities and economic disparities are all inextricably linked. For those reasons and more, it’s my mission at EPA to broaden this conversation, to expand the tent of our coalition, to diversify the voices of those calling for environmental change – even if they don’t call themselves environmentalists. Since my first days as Administrator, we’ve worked to reach out to communities that need support. That has meant traveling to different communities and speaking at conferences and other events where EPA Administrators don’t typically appear. We have initiated Brownfields restoration and redevelopment of contaminated sites along the Atlanta Beltline and in the South Side of Chicago, stepped up protections of urban waters along L.A.’s Compton Creek and toured tribal lands to see firsthand the challenges they face. We are translating more and more of our materials into Spanish to make them more accessible. We even have a Spanish-language twitter feed.

And we’re making sure that this change in focus is also supported by changes in our institutions. I’ve put in place the very first Special Advisor for Environmental Justice – a person who counsels me on these issues, and who I hope will be there to counsel future administrators as well. We’ve issued guidance to every office in the agency, outlining strategies for considering environmental justice in every decision we make at EPA. And we’ve reconnected with our partners throughout federal government. In September we held a meeting at the White House to reconvene the leadership of the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice. It was the first time the leaders of the Working Group had met in more than a decade.

While I’m on the subject of interagency partnerships, let me say a word about the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities that EPA is part of with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As part of our recovery from the worst economic downturn since World War II, we are re-thinking the ways we grow and develop our communities. We want to make sure that American communities are economically resilient, environmentally sustainable and supportive of good health. Through this partnership, our housing investments are being made with consideration to our transportation investments – which are being made with consideration to our investments in environmental infrastructure. That means more livable, healthier communities with less vulnerability to pollution. It means expanded access to affordable housing that is within walking distance of healthy food options, recreation and parks, schools, jobs and – yes – health care. Sustainable projects like these that are good for our health, our wallets and our environment are an important part of our work to level all disparities.

After 40 years, EPA remains focused on its mission to protect our health by removing and preventing pollution in our environment. We want environmental protection to continue to be an “ounce of prevention” that keeps millions of Americans healthy. But we have important work to do to make sure those efforts reach every community. By recognizing the importance of environmental issues in those communities, and the way they impact the health disparities in our country, we can begin the necessary work. With you help, we can expand the conversation on environmental protection in the United States and help close the gaps facing our society today. That way, Americans 40 years from today will look back and remember this generation as one that helped build a cleaner, healthier, more prosperous future for everyone. I look forward to working with you all. Thank you very much.