Sebelius, Jackson: Health, Environment and Justice

While it's vital that Americans get the care they need at hospitals and doctors' offices, we can prevent thousands of people from getting sick in the first place by cleaning up the air we breathe, the water we drink and the communities we call home. In the past two-and-a-half years, our agencies have joined forces to provide all Americans with the best preventive medicine: a clean, healthy environment.

There shouldn't be a single neighborhood where parents have to worry about letting their kids play outside for fear they might get sick. Yet today, one in every 12 Americans — and one in 10 children —suffers from asthma, which is worsened by air pollution. In total, our children's exposure to air pollution and toxic chemicals costs America more than $75 billion every year. When our nation is working to pay the bills, we shouldn't be spending $75 billion a year to pay for illnesses we could have prevented.

What's especially disturbing is that many of the communities most in need of an economic boost, especially minority or low-income ones, also bear the greatest burdens from environmental degradation and pollution. Nearly three-quarters of Latinos live in areas that don't meet U.S. air pollution standards, and African Americans are twice as likely to die of asthma as white Americans.

Our agencies are working to reverse these trends. We've brought together environmental and health experts to evaluate and clean up contaminated and under-utilized properties that can be reused for housing, grocery stores and health centers. It's a strategy that takes pollution out of our communities and puts jobs and opportunities back in.

And we've combined our data to give local policymakers access to detailed information on environmental factors and health disparities. A local health official can now look at data on air quality and asthma hospitalization at the same time, and use it to identify at-risk communities and improve prevention efforts. This work complements efforts — like improved air standards to cut down on toxics like mercury and arsenic — that reduce pollution itself.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency updated its Environmental Justice Strategy. And this month, Health and Human Services announced its own draft Environmental Justice Strategy, which lays out a set of actions that will help us promote better health and a safer environment for all.

For example, we will work with health centers and other providers in underserved communities across the country to help them recognize these environmental factors and address them. A patient's asthma, for example, might be getting worse because of mold and dampness in the home, not problems with medications.

We'll also explore the possibility of including information about environmental exposures in electronic health records. As a patient, you want to be sure that your doctor has all the relevant information when developing a treatment plan. And that includes whether you've been exposed to a harmful substance.

Thanks to these efforts, Americans across the country will enjoy cleaner air, safer homes and healthier workplaces. Families can spend less on medical bills and workers can avoid sick days — giving consumers and businesses more money to invest in our economy. It all adds up to healthier, more prosperous communities and a stronger economy.

Every American deserves to have a clean, safe environment. Our agencies will continue to work with each other and with partners across the country to make that a reality.

Kathleen Sebelius is secretary of Health and Human Services. Lisa Jackson is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.