National Healthy Homes Conference
June 23, 2011
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, I am delighted to be here.
I want to thank Dr. Portier for his kind introduction and for his terrific leadership as director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I also want to thank all of our partners across the government, including our lead hosts at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
We have worked closely with Secretary Donovan, Deputy Secretary Sims, Jon Gant and their terrific team at HUD to promote healthy homes and healthy families. Over the last two years, our departments have also teamed up to assist seniors and people with disabilities who want to live independently. And we’ve worked closely to reduce and prevent homelessness.
I want to thank you and all of our partners for the work you do to improve America’s health.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, that’s our mission. And we understand that health is not just determined by what happens in the doctor’s office or the operating room.
It also depends on where you live, work, go to school, and play, what you eat and drink, the air you breathe, and how you get around. These environmental factors have powerful consequences in our lives every day, and nowhere do we feel their impact more deeply than in our own homes.
Home is where we build our lives. It is where we raise our children. It’s where we spend most of our time.
We have long known that healthy homes can lead to healthier lives -- and that healthy homes are essential to a healthy community.
It is no wonder that many of the most extraordinary improvements in health over the last century -- like reductions in tuberculosis and lead poisoning -- were the result of improvements we made to our nation’s homes.
Yet, we still have a long way to go.
Unsafe housing is a danger to the health of millions of people across the United States. Minorities and lower income families have significantly higher odds of living in inadequate housing.
And they pay a steep price in their own health.
The good news is that we know how to make homes healthier, safer, more accessible, and more environmentally-friendly.
Two years ago then-Surgeon General Dr. Steven Galson issued a Call to Action to Promote Healthy Homes, drawing a clear connection between our health and the design, safety, and maintenance of our homes.
The report laid out specific steps that people could take to protect themselves – from checking gas appliances, fireplaces, and furnaces to avoiding toxic chemicals, from protecting and maintaining their private water wells to ensuring their children have appropriate supervision.
These are the kinds of changes many of you here today have been talking about for years.
And yet, a large gap exists between what we know about making homes healthier, and what we actually do as a nation.
For example, research has shown that although parents say they support injury-prevention, their home lives do not always show it. One survey showed that two out of every five parents had their water heater temperature set too high. More than a quarter had no smoke alarms.
Altogether, there are more than 6 million substandard housing units nationwide.
So we’re taking steps to make sure people clearly understand that their health and their families’ health is at stake.
But while keeping a healthy home is a personal responsibility, we also recognize that no one can do it entirely on their own. And people can only build a healthy home if they understand what that means and how to achieve it.
So we’re making sure everyone has the information to respond effectively when new problems come up.
We’re educating at-risk populations and using messages that are culturally sensitive and inclusive. We’re working with doctors and nurses to incorporate healthy housing solutions into their protocols, and supporting state and local governments that want to create affordable housing options that also improve people’s health.
When a specific danger becomes clear, we’re prepared to tackle it together, from every angle.
For example, earlier this week HHS joined with nine other agencies led by EPA to reduce exposure to radon in people’s homes.
We know that people who breathe high levels of radon -- a gas you cannot see or smell -- are at an increased risk for developing lung cancer, especially people who smoke.
So the EPA launched a Federal Action Plan on Radon that will educate families, incorporate testing into federal programs, invest in new standards, update codes, and establish incentives that drive radon testing and reduction in the private and public sectors.
We also know that the best ideas often come from experts at work in the field, so CDC continues to support the National Healthy Homes Training Center and Network which brings together public health and housing practitioners to share ideas and to help them spread.
By taking a holistic approach to building healthy homes, we’re saying everyone has a stake in the process: parents, homebuilders, community leaders and policy makers.
Now, as much as we often like to think of our homes as a refuge from the rest of the world – the truth is, no home is an island. Every home is part of an even broader environment. And when we walk out the front door, we are faced with a world of countless choices.
And yet, in too many neighborhoods today, it’s hard, and sometimes impossible, to make healthy choices.
When you have to walk two miles to get fresh produce at the nearest supermarket but only half a block to get a bag of chips at the corner store, it’s hard to eat nutritious meals.
When it’s not safe to walk, run or play outside, it’s hard to get exercise
So we’re supporting programs like Communities Putting Prevention to Work, a key part of the Recovery Act which invested a historic $650 million in some of the most promising local strategies across the country for promoting wellness and reducing chronic disease.
I’ve visited a number of these sites over the last two years from a an urban farm in Boston where students are growing fresh fruits and vegetables that are sold at local farmers markets, to a school in Louisville that has incorporated physical exercise into the classroom.
Our hope is that these communities can become models for the rest of the country.
So if you’re a mayor or a school principal or a housing commissioner and you want to understand how to improve health in your city or school or community, we’ll be able to point to these examples and say: this is what works.
One of the key parts of the health reform law is a $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund that will invest in similar programs across the country.
We recently announced over $100 million in Community Transformation Grants available from the fund for as many as 75 community-based projects across the country aimed at creating healthy environments and promoting healthy lifestyles.
And that includes tobacco-free living.
Every day, nearly 4,000 kids under 18 try their first cigarette, and some 1,000 kids under 18 become daily smokers.
Even those who don’t take up smoking can be in danger if the people around them continue to smoke. Secondhand smoke exposure alone can cause serious disease and death in adults and children, including heart disease and lung cancer.
Eliminating that danger is an essential part of supporting healthy homes and healthy communities.
So shortly after the President took office he signed CHIPRA – the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act – which included a 62 cent per pack increase in the federal cigarette tax.
Then in June of 2009, President Obama signed historic legislation which, for the first time, gave the FDA the power to regulate tobacco products.
Chief among the law’s many important reforms are the steps it takes to confront marketing practices aimed at children.
The FDA has banned the tobacco industry from making claims of reduced harm without solid scientific backing, for example.
And earlier this week, the FDA unveiled the final versions of graphic warning labels which represent the first significant update in more 25 years.
These labels are frank, honest and powerful depictions of the health risks of smoking and they will help encourage smokers to quit, prevent children from smoking, and keep our air safe for everyone.
When we work to put an end to tobacco use, we’re making an investment in our health and the world around us.
It is an investment that pays off many times over in the future.
And it is part an ambitious commitment to steadily shift the focus of our health care system – from waiting for people to become acutely ill, to giving them access to the information, choices, and care they need earlier – in a way that is more cost-effective and more health-effective.
It is also why we’ve made it a priority to invest in our primary care workforce and to encourage clinicians to practice in our nation’s greatest areas of need through programs like the National Health Service Corps.
And, so that those doctors, nurse practitioners and dentists have the opportunity to work in underserved communities, we’re investing billions to double the capacity of America’s community health centers over 5 years.
Community health centers are not just the place where people go when they get sick.
For many people, they are health homes. And they are the backbones of their communities.
Expanding access to quality, affordable primary and preventive care is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
It strengthens the connections in our communities. It improves the lives of millions of Americans. And it brings down our country’s health costs.
But we also know that our department and even the broader public health sector cannot do this work alone.
If we want to promote safe and healthy housing, we need to work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
If we want to serve healthier school lunches, which are where our kids get so much of their nutrition, we need to work with the Departments of Agriculture and Education.
If we want to design neighborhoods where it’s easier to walk or bike, we need to work with the Department of Transportation.
That’s why the law created the National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council, chaired by our nation’s doctor, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.
Last week, the council released our country’s first ever National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy, focusing on building safer communities, empowering people to make healthy decisions, eliminating health disparities, and bringing prevention from the doctor’s office into communities and specifically, our homes.
And while we will continue to make it a priority to collaborate more effectively across government, we also know that the kind of change we are seeking often start at the community level.
Often, the best thing we can do is to support, invest in, and publicize these efforts to help them spread.
So I invite you to keep sharing your ideas and educating your neighbors. The main message I want you to take away today is that our department is eager to work with you.
There is nothing more important than health. For America, the health of our citizens is the foundation of our prosperity. And our homes are the cornerstone of that foundation.
By working together to ensure that safe, healthy homes are available to everyone, we’re building strong communities where our children can grow, our workforce can thrive, and everyone can reach their greatest potential.