Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: Nov. 17, 2005
Location: Washington, DC


STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - November 17, 2005)

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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, today, I am introducing the Healthy Communities Act of 2005, and I am pleased to have the support of my good friend and colleague Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON.

Over the last few decades, our medical researchers and scientists have developed increasingly sophisticated and high tech methods to diagnose and treat disease. Yet, this approach has caused us to lose sight of the need for preventing diseases on the front-end, with greater investment in basic public health interventions that too often get short shrift.

Today, I would like to bring it back to the basics and talk about environmental quality. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the houses in which we live, and the parks in which our children play--all of these factors contribute to our health. Environmental health, as defined by the World Health Organization, includes both the direct, damaging effects of chemicals, radiation, and some biological agents, and the effects on health and well-being of the broad physical, psychological, social, and aesthetic environment. The legislation that I have introduced draws attention to that aspect of the environment that is the physical environment--the toxicants and pollutants that we may not notice, but are present in our everyday surroundings and taking a toll on our health.

My home State of Illinois faces a number of environmental challenges, including high levels of lead poisoning. It is estimated that over 400,000 children in this country suffer from elevated blood lead levels. Chicago has the unfortunate distinction of ranking number 1 for children with elevated blood lead levels. 6,691 children have elevated blood lead levels, which is 50 percent higher than the number of children in the second ranked city of Philadelphia. Elevated blood levels are known to cause behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, impaired hearing and damage to the kidneys, brain and bone marrow. Adults are not exempt from lead toxicity--poisoned adults suffer pregnancy difficulties, high blood pressure, digestive problems, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain. Lead poisoning is completely preventable, and although our agencies have made good progress, we can and must do more to address this issue.

Obviously lead is only one of many toxicants and pollutants with which we must contend. Different areas of the U.S. face unique challenges--States like California are grappling with the repercussions of air pollution, while Massachusetts and others in the Northeast are challenged with high levels of mercury in the water. As much as we know about these hazards, the effects of many chemicals are unknown.

Less than half of the chemicals produced in this country in quantities greater than 10,000 pounds have been tested for their potential human toxicity, with less than 10 percent studied to assess effects on development. This lack of knowledge has serious health repercussions--in children, environmental toxins are estimated to cause up to 35 percent of asthma cases, up to 10 percent of cancer cases, and up to 20 percent of neurobehavioral disorders. Overall, an estimated 25 percent of preventable illnesses worldwide can be attributed to poor environmental quality. Diseases such as cancer, heart disease, asthma, birth defects, infertility, and obesity are all caused or exacerbated by toxicants or pollutants in the environment.

Minority Americans are significantly more likely to be affected than other Americans. Some studies have found that 3 of every 5 African- and Latino Americans live in communities with one or more toxic waste sites. Communities with existing incinerators, and those that are proposed for placement of new incinerators, have substantially higher numbers of minority residents. Minority Americans are already plagued with higher rates of death and disease, and fewer health resources in their neighborhoods. As we focus our efforts on environmental health, we must be cognizant that some groups are disproportionately affected by federal policies and decision-making, and deserve careful attention.

The Healthy Communities Act of 2005 addresses environmental health concerns in a comprehensive fashion, building upon many of the successful federal initiatives and filling in gaps in other critical areas. The bill establishes an independent advisory committee to provide recommendations across all relevant Federal agencies. It asks the CDC and the EPA to assess and report the environmental public health of the nation, and each State. The Health Action Zone Program will provide intense Federal attention and resources to clean up and address the health needs of the nation's most blighted communities. Environmental research is expanded, including biomonitoring and health tracking initiatives. Finally, the Act promotes environmental health workforce programs at the CDC and the NIH.

The Healthy Communities Act of 2005 will increase national attention on the importance of the environment, and its relationship to good health. As we work to make our future stronger for our communities, let us look to our past. In the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, Congress wrote that it is the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government to assure that all Americans live in ``safe, healthful and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.'' Almost forty years later, our responsibility to the American people continues. I encourage all of my colleagues to join me and support passage of this bill.

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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to introduce the Lead Free Toys Act of 2005, which directs the Consumer Product Safety Commission to intensify efforts to reduce lead exposure for children.

The unfortunate reality for many children--particularly in low-income and minority households--is the continued presence of high blood lead levels. Over 400,000 children in this country have elevated blood lead levels, with my own hometown of Chicago having the largest concentration of these children.

Lead is a highly toxic substance that can produce a range of health problems in young children, including IQ deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention spans, hyperactivity, and damage to the kidneys, brain and bone marrow. Even low levels of blood lead in pregnant women, infants and children can lead to impaired cognitive abilities, fetal organ development and behavioral problems.

We know that lead poisoning is completely preventable. As the Nation has increased efforts to reduce environmental lead exposure, the number of children with high blood levels has steadily dropped. Restricting lead in gasoline and paint represent two major accomplishments in this regard. But much work remains to be done.

Earlier today I introduced the Healthy Communities Act of 2005, to strengthen Federal, State and local efforts to address environmental health issues in communities already affected by lead and other toxins. However, we need to take greater proactive steps to prevent contamination, and the Lead Free Toys Act of 2005 will help us do just that.

Disturbingly, lead is present in a number of toys and other frequently used objects by young children. According to research conducted by the National Center for Environmental Health, about half of tested lunch boxes have unsafe levels of lead. The highly popular Angela Anaconda lunch box was found to have 56,400 parts per million of lead, which is more than 90 times the 600 parts per million legal limit for lead in paint for children's products. Other lunch boxes showed levels of lead between two and twenty-five times the legal limit for lead paint in children's products. In most cases, the highest lead levels were found in the lining of lunch boxes, where lead could come into direct contact with food.

This problem is not limited to lunchboxes. One study found that 60 percent of more than 400 pieces of costume jewelry purchased at major department stories contain dangerous amounts of lead. From September 2003 through July 2004, there were 3 recalls of nearly 150 million pieces of toy jewelry because of toxic levels of lead.

This past August the Centers for Disease Control updated their ``Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children'' statement calling for the elimination of all nonessential uses of lead in children's products. Specifically, the CDC urged a more systematic approach to identifying lead-contaminated items and prohibiting their sale before children are exposed, rather than usual recall efforts after exposure has occurred.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission leads our national efforts to safeguard our children from potentially dangerous objects. However, the Commission has dragged its feet in aggressively addressing the problem of lead in toys. The Lead Free Toys Act, introduced by my colleague Congressman HENRY WAXMAN earlier this year, requires the Consumer Product Safety Commission to prescribe regulations classifying any children's product containing lead as a banned hazardous substance under the Hazardous Substances Act. It defines ``children's product containing lead'' as any consumer product marketed or used by children under age 6 that contains more than trace amounts of lead as determined by the Commission and prescribed by regulations. The Act also requires the Commission to issue standards for reduction in lead in electronic devices.

It's a national disgrace that toys that could pose a serious and significant danger to children are readily available in our department stores and markets. The Lead Free Toys Act of 2005 will help us keep our children safe and healthy, and contribute to national efforts to reduce lead exposure. I ask each of my colleagues to help support this Act.

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