For Immediate Release: February 2, 2016
TFAH Calls for Urgent Action in Flint, MI, Jackson, MS and Renewed National Priority on Environmental Health
Washington, D.C., February 2, 2016 – The following is a statement by Gail C. Christopher, D.N., board chair of the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and vice president for policy and senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation:
“The Trust for America’s Health lends its voice to the call for urgent action to be taken to protect the health of the citizens of Flint, Michigan and for immediate, rapid assessment of the water in Jackson, Mississippi.
Every possible step must be taken to provide clean, safe water to every community on a permanent basis. But that’s not enough; sufficient resources must be available to provide for the lifelong health needs of those harmed. Poisoning from lead and other contaminants have severe consequences – especially for young children and pregnant women – including putting babies and children at high risk for serious developmental, neurobehavioral and cognitive delays.
An appropriate response requires not only short-term medical care, but ongoing, intensive health, social service and educational support. Members of the community must be an equal partner in the response and plans moving forward. The Flint tragedy was created by looking to solve problems on the cheap at the expense of the health of the city. It is a national responsibility to now commit to long-term, sustained solutions to improve the future of the city. We must never turn our backs on them again.
The Flint fiasco also is a clarion call to re-examine and renew our nation’s environmental health policies and practices. Of course, the fact that 40 percent of the people of Flint live at or below the poverty line and 56 percent are Black makes this situation particularly troubling – and, as raised in the New York Times last month, issues of environmental justice and racism must be at the top of the agenda.
We must not let tragedies go unanswered. It is time to take action on long-neglected environmental health concerns – and make them a national priority. TFAH is committed to redoubling efforts to improve environmental health and is committed to working with policymakers, partners and the public on a range of top concerns, including:
Ensuring families have safe, healthy homes and communities: Currently millions of families live in conditions that adversely impact their health. In 2009, the Surgeon General issued a call to Action To Promote Healthy Homes, identifying health concerns and evidence-based policies for prevention, such as improving air quality, carbon monoxide poisoning prevention, radon gas mitigation, reducing allergens and asthma, improving water quality, reducing harmful chemicals, preventing elevated lead levels, reducing disparities in access to healthy and safe homes, addressing community factors that affect health and homes and housing instability.
Assuring clean water for all Americans: In addition to lead being an ongoing problem in the drinking water in some communities, waterborne illnesses overall still pose a serious threat generally. Despite advances in water management and even though water-related illnesses are largely unreported unless they are severe, each year around 30 outbreaks and 1,000 reported drinking water-related cases and around 24 outbreaks and 1,300 recreational water-related cases occur. Measures like the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Rule help improve and restore guaranteed protection of safe water availability.
Eliminating lead poisoning in children: Through contaminated water and lead paint (which still remains in some older, low-income urban housing, but banned from use in 1978), around 2.6 percent of children ages 1 to 5 (535,000 nationwide) have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Some U.S. water systems still have levels of lead contamination and an estimated 24 million Americans, including 4 million young children, are estimated to face significant lead-based paint exposure. Rates of lead poisoning are significantly higher for children living in poverty or very low-income homes (4.4 percent) and are highest among Black children (5.6 percent). Public health efforts – including improving water systems, lead paint remediation and required screening of exposure in children -- have helped reduce lead poisoning levels by 70 percent since 1990.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates it can cost $5,600 for just the medical and special education needs per year per child with lead poisoning. The return on investment for lead control programs found that for every dollar spent, $17 to $221 is returned in health benefits, increased intelligence quotient (IQ), higher lifetime earnings, tax revenue, reduced spending on special education and reduced criminal activity, resulting in a potential net benefit of $181 billion to $269 billion.
Reducing asthma: Around one in 11 American children currently have asthma, which can be triggered by pollen, mold, animal dander, cockroaches, rodents and dust mites — and children are at greater risk to these threats if they live in a household where they experience regular exposure to them. In the past decade, asthma rates have increased by nearly 15 percent, growing by more than 50 percent among Black children. Efforts to reduce triggers via home remediation services and housing support options can greatly reduce numbers of asthma attacks and recurring emergency room visits. For instance, a Boston Community Asthma Initiative led to a return of $1.46 to insurers/society for every $1 invested. In addition, EPA’s Clean Air Act and similar rules can help lower emissions rates of a number of air pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, dioxins, volatile organic compounds, acid gases, heavy metals, smog and soot, which in turn reduce not only asthma and respiratory episodes, but also premature mortality, chronic bronchitis and heart attacks.
- More than 12 percent of children in families living in poverty have asthma, compared to 8.2 percent of middle and higher income families. More than 16 percent of Black children, 16.5 percent of Puerto Rican children, and 10 percent of American Indian and Native Alaskan children have asthma. It is the second most costly medical condition among children, at nearly $12 billion, and it contributes to more than 10.5 million missed school days annually. In May 2012, the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health and Safety Risks to Children released a Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities, a three- to five-year partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and EPA.
Limiting exposure to environmental hazards, including pollution, toxic chemicals, contaminated water and food and waste from landfills: Exposure to environmental toxins can have a negative impact on health, particularly for children. Even relatively low levels of exposure contribute to lower birth weights, lower test scores and lower lifelong earning potential. Low-income housing is more likely to be located close to sources of pollution. Black and less educated women are more likely to live within 200 meters of Superfund hazardous waste sites or factories emitting toxic releases. Superfund cleanups have been linked to a reduction of incidence in cognitive anomalies in infants by around 20 percent. Lead has been found at 75 percent of National Priority List (NPL) Superfund sites.
- In 2014, the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG) created a community-based resource guide to help the EPA better incorporate environmental justice into federal programs, policies and initiatives and developed a partnership among the EPA, HUD and the U.S. Department of Transportation to help improve access to affordable, safe housing while safeguarding the environment.
Expanding research on the connection between the environment and health, including a National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network: While there are clear connections showing the negative impact of lead, mercury and many other toxins on health, more research is needed to better understand the impact and scope of different environmental factors on health – and/or to disprove potential theories. A better research system could provide “early warning” information about environmental-exposure emergencies, such as in Flint. With initial funding, CDC created a pilot system in 20 states to study disease and health problem patterns in different communities. Today, the Tracking program funds 26 state and local health departments. Additional resources are needed to build out the system to better identify the connections and causes of many diseases and to expand to all states. A fully functioning Tracking Network holds the potential to help unlock a range of medical mysteries, including a better understanding of patterns related to autism, some forms of birth defects and the impact of pollution on asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
- Exposure to some chemicals have been shown to increase the risk of a child developing developmental disabilities. These chemicals include alcohol, arsenic, lead, manganese, mercury, nicotine, pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and solvents.”
Trust for America’s Health is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to saving lives by protecting the health of every community and working to make disease prevention a national priority. www.healthyamericans.org