Federal health officials last week announced what’s being touted as the first national, place-based mapping tool designed to measure the cumulative impacts of environmental burden through the lenses of human health and health equity.
The true value of the Environmental Justice Index (EJI) is its focus on cumulative impacts, which are the total harm to human health that occurs from the combination of environmental burdens like pollution and poor environmental conditions, pre-existing health conditions, and social factors.
This tool – created by the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Environmental Justice –uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Mine Safety, and Health Administration, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to rank the cumulative impacts of environmental injustice on health for every census tract.
The EJI builds off existing environmental justice indexes to provide a single environmental justice score for local communities across the United States so that public health officials can identify and map areas most at risk for the health impacts of environmental burden.
Let’s pause here for a quick example of how pre-existing health conditions can be worsened by environmental burden: Imagine two people with asthma. One person lives in a community with elevated air pollution, and the other person does not. While both people have asthma, the person living in the community with elevated air pollution may be more likely to be hospitalized based on both factors.
CHD officials called the new tool “critical to advancing health equity” while the ATSDR said the EJI “strengthens the scientific evidence on the cumulative health impacts of the environmental burden on communities across the country.”
The agencies created an online, interactive tool to help public health officials and communities identify and map communities most at risk for facing the health impacts of environmental hazards. Social factors, such as poverty, race, and ethnicity, along with pre-existing health conditions, may increase these impacts.
Bottom line? The EJI can help public health officials, policymakers, and communities identify and respond to the unique environmental and social factors that affect a community’s health and well-being.
Specifically, the EJI databases and maps can be used to:
identify areas that may require special attention or additional resources to improve health and health equity,
educate and inform the public about their community,
analyze the unique, local factors driving cumulative impacts on health to inform policy and decision-making, and
establish meaningful goals and measure progress towards environmental justice and health equity.
GASP staff utilized the EJI tool to review the rankings for the City of Clairton, a community historically impacted by emissions from one of Allegheny County’s most egregious air polluters – U.S. Steel.
What we found was startling but not surprising.
On the mapping tool, the City of Clairton includes three census tracts.
When looking at several tracts at once, the summary EJI scores for the several major categories appear in the left-hand column.
For individual census tracts you can get additional detailed information (some shown in the images but click on the “tract” links below for the full rankings).
This tract has an EJI rank of 0.97 overall. This means that 97 percent of census tracts in the nation likely experience less severe cumulative impacts from the environmental burden and that just 3 percent of tracts in the nation likely experience more severe cumulative impacts from the environmental burden.
Its rank for air pollution is 0.89, which means it has an air pollution burden worse than 89 percent of the United States. You can see part of this overall calculation is its ranking for air toxics cancer risk, which is listed as 1.0 – the worst ranking within a category.
Here’s a look at the second Clairton tract:
The second tract had similarly alarming scores: Its overall EJI ranking is 0.99, which means it experiences severe cumulative impacts from the environmental burden that is likely worse than 99 percent of the United States. Like its neighbor to the East, the air pollution burden rank was 0.89 and its air toxic cancer risk rank was 1.0.
“Let that sink in,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “What that number tells us is that when it comes to cancer risk from toxic air, Clairton residents are at the highest risk of any other area in the nation.”
And here’s an overview of the third Clairton tract:
The third tract had an overall EJI rank of 0.90, an air pollution rank of 0.88 and an air toxic cancer risk of 0.99.
Clairton also ranked poorly when it came to the prevalence of pre-existing disease, with a ranking of 5 out of 5. In all three Clairton tracts, there was a high prevalence of:
High blood pressure
Poor mental health
“While the rankings are startling, they sadly aren’t surprising. Pittsburghers already know all too well how profoundly environmental injustice can negatively impact our health and wellbeing,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “The EJI confirms the lived experience of so many of our neighbors. We hope the Allegheny County Health Department will utilize this tool to inform its decision-making on what air quality monitoring, outreach, research, and enforcement efforts to prioritize to ensure health equity for all its residents – especially those in the Mon Valley, who have borne the brunt of our local pollution for far too long.”
GASP staff also reviewed the EJI by county. Here’s an overview:
We encourage local residents, policymakers, and advocates to check out the tool here to see how your community ranks.