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Your Environment. Your Health.

New Mapping Tool Pinpoints Environmental Inequality in Washington State

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A new interactive map developed by NIEHS-funded researchers and partners helps shed light on how Washington communities rank on environmental health risk factors. The tool combines measures of pollution, proximity to environmental hazards, population health, and socioeconomic status into a score used to rank each of Washington's 1,458 census districts on their relative environmental health risk.

The Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map, developed by University of Washington (UW) researchers and partners, uses the most comprehensive data available to map 19 indicators of community health. The map provides a statewide view of the cumulative environmental health risks each neighborhood faces from pollution that may contribute to inequitable health outcomes and unequal access to healthy neighborhoods.

"This tool can provide policymakers, community leaders, and others with data to inform and shape policies and investments that reduce environmental health impacts on our communities," said UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) associate professor Edmund Seto, Ph.D., in a DEOHS news story. Seto, who helped develop the tool, is part of the NIEHS-funded UW Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment.

maps of washington state

The tool ranks communities from 1, in blue, to 10, in red, to show the risk they face from environmental health hazards.
(Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Health)

The interactive maps provide concrete evidence that census districts with more people of color, immigrants, and poor or working-class households are often located closer to industrial zones, polluted waterways, and high-traffic roads. These districts also tend to lack enough affordable housing and have unequal access to healthy neighborhoods.

"The map makes clear that people in communities with lower incomes, less access to education and health care, and poorer overall health also shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of environmental pollution," said Michael Yost, Ph.D., an NIEHS-funded researcher and member of the project team.

Led by UW DEOHS doctoral student Esther Min, the tool was developed through a two-year collaboration between the UW DEOHS, the statewide environmental justice coalition Front and Centered, the Washington State Department of Health, the Washington State Department of Ecology, and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. They adapted the methodology from the California Environmental Protection Agency's CalEnviroScreen, a mapping tool that helps identify California communities that are most affected by pollution, as well as locations where people are especially vulnerable to pollution's effects.

Community members discuss the effects of pollution in their neighborhoods

Community members discuss the effects of pollution in their neighborhoods at one of the 11 listening sessions.
(Photo courtesy of Front and Centered)

Nearly 200 people across Washington helped shape the tool through a series of 11 statewide listening sessions. As part of these sessions, community members described environmental health risk factors their community faces and how they are affected by them.

The sessions included community groups representing immigrants, tribes, farmworkers, communities of color, the elderly, and others disproportionately impacted by pollution. More listening sessions will take place to regularly inform the project and to check the accuracy of the map.

According to the full report about the tool's development and methodology, the research team reviewed existing methods and tools that modeled environmental health impacts. They also conducted a literature review to determine the relationship between different indicators and environmental health. They identified data sources for these indicators and evaluated and assessed each data source for reliability and quality.

"By harnessing data to pinpoint environmental inequality, it's possible to show precisely where the state's most highly impacted communities are concentrated and create customized solutions to reduce their risk," Seto said. The Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map is intended to help policymakers and the public visualize and compare how pollution and other environmental risks affect Washington residents and could potentially inform state environmental policy, budgeting priorities, and regulation enforcement to reduce health inequities across communities.

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