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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Tools for Schools Award Ceremony, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Let me add to the chorus of Thank Yous and Congratulations for our featured School Districts from New Orleans, Philadelphia, Memphis, Lake Zurich and Schodack. These schools represent the range of challenges faced by urban, suburban, and rural communities, and have important lessons for schools around the country. I also congratulate the school districts honored last night with National Excellence Awards. Thank you for leading the way on clean air for our students. Thank you for the important work you do.

Now, let me take a moment to explain something. Whenever I give a speech, there is always a long list of people to thank – occasionally awardees to acknowledge. Today, when I say Thank You for your work, it comes from a very personal place. My 13 year old son Brian has fought with asthma his entire life. Over the years, there have been a countless number of sleepless nights when I’ve awoken to the sounds of his croup…years of traveling with Brian’s nebulizer, his masks, and his medications…years of being extra careful when it’s hot outside or when other environmental triggers are present. As his mother, that has also meant years of sending Brian to school everyday and wondering if he would have an attack while I wasn’t there to help him.

There are millions of parents like me, who have felt that same anxiety. I’m sure some of you here know that feeling. The IAQ Tools for Schools may not make headlines or get you on TV. But the peace of mind your work provides for parents, and the better days it provides to our kids are bigger than any of that. They are what our work at EPA is all about. I’m glad to have the chance to express my gratitude.

Protecting children’s health has been a top priority of ours since day one. Early last year we got a very important reminder when First Lady Michelle Obama visited EPA. She told us that “the health and safety of our children is our top priority.” We have kept children’s health in our sites for every action we’ve undertaken in 2009.

When we called for chemical management reform, it was because we continued to hear about potentially harmful chemicals in baby bottles or children’s toys – or on the food we eat. In December we announced plans to extend the children’s health provisions under the Food Quality Protection Act to protect them from a broader range of pesticides.

When we acted to strengthen water enforcement, it’s because we wanted to ensure that the water we drink and give to our children is safe.

And when we took our nation’s first official actions on climate change, it was because we’ve already lost too much time in confronting this threat to our children’s futures.

Earlier this week, I outlined seven priorities to build on the work of 2009. Because our time is short, I’ll just provide a quick list. But children’s health plays a paramount role in each of them.

The first is Taking Action On Climate Change – which as I said is critical to our children’s futures. The second is Improving Air Quality – the importance of which I know you already understand. And we began 2010 by announcing stronger standards for smog pollution. The next priority is Assuring the Safety of Chemicals. EPA has an opportunity to make significant and long-overdue progress in assuring the safety of chemicals that are ubiquitous in our products, and in our environment, and in our bodies – and that are especially risky for our children. The next priority is Cleaning Up Our Communities – which will help get dangerous contaminants out of communities. We will focus on Protecting America’s Waters to ensure that the water we drink, swim in, and give to our children is clean and safe. We will focus on Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice – a renewed focus on protecting our most vulnerable populations. Children are at the top of that list. Last but certainly not least, we will continue Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships. States and tribal governments put critical children’s health efforts into effect. At this time of fiscal challenge, strong partnerships are more important than ever.

And of course, we have more specific measures in place. In 2009, EPA initiated a program to monitor air quality around some of the nation’s public schools. That was largely 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. They felt that same anxiety that I know all too well.

Right now, EPA is working with state and local air agencies and tribal governments to monitor air quality around 63 schools in 22 states and at two tribal schools. This will provide important information about potential air toxics around schools, so we can equip communities with the tools and resources they need.

EPA is also working with a broad range of stakeholder to developing new voluntary guidelines for school site selection. We want to help states and communities with decision-making processes about where new schools are located. We can avoid high risk areas and prevent indoor and outdoor air quality challenges before they arise. We want a timely, thorough, and transparent assessment of the potential risks of candidate sites. We have a special task group of our Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee developing recommendations to help EPA craft those voluntary guidelines.

Last year also saw some significant Recovery Act investments in clean diesel retrofits for school buses. In May I made a couple of stops at schools in Ohio to award $6 million for clean diesel grants. Some of those grants were going towards cleaner school buses to take 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 a clean diesel bus, and one on a normal diesel bus. 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.

But of course, outside air is not the only concern we have. Other than the time they spend at home, our children spend more time in schools than in any other place. While they are there, it is our task to protect them from radon, mold, chemical exposures and asthma triggers. Asthma results in nearly 13 million lost school days per year. Attacks can be caused by triggers often found in the school environment, as I know very well. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States today – behind only smoking, and accounts for thousands of lung cancer deaths annually.

We are working to addresses school environmental health not only through traditional regulatory efforts and research, but also through outreach and education programs. We want to reach out to the community directly, and to schools through programs like IAQ Tools for Schools and the National Asthma and Radon Programs. All of these efforts – I expect – will be greatly strengthened through our growing partnership with the Department of Education. Thanks to your hard work, we are making good progress. More than half of our nation’s schools now report that they have IAQ management programs in place. That is great news. The bad news is that almost half of our nation’s schools don’t have IAQ programs. We have work to do to reach those schools and ensure that all students and staff learn and work in healthy environments.

This is an issue that touches entire communities. Thank you for leading the way towards real solutions. 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 in and around our schools. And we continue to look ahead. The prevalence of asthma – particularly in children – has increased at alarming rates in the last 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 need our work the most? We have a long way to go, but with your innovation and hard work we are making progress. You are giving hope and peace of mind to millions of Americans – and comfort to millions of students. Thank you so much. I look forward to working with you.