Connecting state and local government leaders
The Environmental Justice Index gives state and local leaders a holistic view of environmental, social and health issues in their communities.
An interactive map developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can help state and local leaders to assess the impact of environmental burdens on their communities’ health.
The Environmental Justice Index combines 36 health, social and environmental indicators to assign an environmental justice score for each census tract. The index gives public health officials an opportunity to identify and prioritize vulnerable areas, analyze factors unique to their communities that can inform policy and decision-making and establish goals and measure progress towards equity, according to an EJI fact sheet.
On the map, users can view the U.S. as a whole, zoom into specific areas or search for a location by state, county or address. Clicking on a location opens a profile that provides more specific data on health, social and environmental factors such as population, site walkability, residents’ education levels and prevalence of chronic diseases.
The EJI takes after state-developed maps such as California’s CalEnviroScreen, Benjamin McKenzie, a CDC geospatial epidemiologist, told GCN in an interview. State- and local-level maps may provide more contextual information, but a national map like the EJI fills in the gaps for governments that do not have adequate data or resources to build tools themselves, he said.
Without a holistic view of a community, government can “perpetuate a cycle of economic or environmental degradation … and poor health,” McKenzie said during a panel at the Esri Federal GIS Conference on Feb. 8.
For example, a local government planning to locate a manufacturing plant in a community may release project information in English only, not realizing the residents are largely non-English speaking. That “makes it really difficult for that community to engage with this decision … and advocate for their own health and wellbeing,” McKenzie said. A few years down the line, that lack of engagement could result in adverse health outcomes due to poor air and water quality, but residents may be unable to afford necessary medical treatments or to move to a healthier area.
“What we intend to do, considering the cumulative impacts of environmental injustice, is to help break the cycle where already vulnerable communities have more and more burden,” he said.
The EJI pulls data from government sources such as the CDC, the Census Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mine Safety and Health Administration to ensure information is reliable and timely, McKenzie said. The resulting percentile score is an unweighted value that officials can use for comparisons. Alternatively, local leaders can apply their own weighting schemes for further analysis because “they have a little bit more of an insight into what’s really important in their community.”
EJI was developed in August in collaboration with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Feedback on the map is encouraged to ensure it is fully representative of featured communities, McKenzie said.