Heart disease, cancer and respiratory illness are three of the top four deadliest health threats in America. They account for more than half of the deaths in the nation and all three have an overwhelming impact on black communities.

Blacks visit the emergency room for asthma at three and a half times the average rate that whites do, and die from it twice as often. Mortality rates for cancer are higher for us than for any other group and heart disease is the most fatal illness in the black community. Many of us have friends or family members battling these diseases, and far too many of us know loved ones who have lost those battles.

There is another common trend here: all of these illnesses have been linked to environmental causes. Pollution in our air, land, and water are connected to our greatest health challenges. African Americans – who are almost twice as likely as other Americans to live in cities – breathe in more air pollution related to asthma and heart disease. High-traffic urban areas are blanketed by smog, doubling the risk of premature birth and raising the threat of developmental disabilities in children. Poor and minority communities often live in the shadow of polluters and face exposure to disease causing chemicals in their land and water.

These health threats don’t travel alone. Building schools in polluted areas means our kids fall behind by missing days of class with asthma or other problems. The poor who get sick because of toxins in their neighborhoods are the same people who typically seek treatment in emergency rooms. That drives up health care costs for everyone and hurts the entire economy.

And environmental challenges hold back economic growth. At a recent meeting of national black business leaders, I heard understandable concerns about the costs of environmental regulations. But what about the costs in lost productivity from employees calling in sick, or staying home with a sick child? What about the costs for small businesses that pay higher health insurance premiums because their workers are at greater risk of chronic diseases? When environmental degradation keeps businesses from investing, economic possibilities are limited. As a result, crime and violence are higher, often drug use is rampant, and the vicious cycle continues. What have we taught our young people to value, aspire to, or take pride in when they see that their communities are unclean, unhealthy and unsafe – and that the people around them seem unconcerned?

Our country is vigorously debating the future of health care, clean energy and climate change. We can bring affordable coverage, clean energy jobs, and healthy environments to black communities, but only if we act with the fierce urgency of this moment. We should fight for these new opportunities the same way previous generations fought for the opportunities we have today. The health and prosperity of African Americans, now and in the years ahead, depend on our work to create clean, safe environments in the places where we live, work, play and learn.

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