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HHS Tool Scores Communities for Cumulative Health Impact Risks

Aug. 11, 2022, 8:57 PM

Marginalized communities will be given a single score that for the first time will reflect environmental health risks, helping state and federal agencies and advocates better focus their environmental equity efforts, a top Health and Human Services official said Thursday.

The Environmental Justice Index is the nation’s first tool to survey neighborhoods and other areas to assess human health based by taking into account pollution and other environmental impacts—as well as pre-existing health conditions and other factors, said Sharunda Buchanan, interim director of the HHS environmental justice office.

The tool will “identify and characterize the cumulative impacts of environmental, social, and chronic health issues facing disadvantaged communities across the US,” said Buchanan, who spoke at a conference held by the University of Maryland Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health.

The index, produced by HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the latest Biden administration effort to determine which communities are suffering the most from pollution, poor health outcomes, and a lack of economic opportunity.

Environmental justice advocates have pressed for a greater emphasis on cumulative impacts, which they say will help ensure that all pollution risks that a community experiences will be considered together. The Environmental Protection Agency also has said it aims to boost the consideration of cumulative impacts when deciding new rules or permits.

Ranking Impacts

The new EJ Index ranks cumulative health impacts for populations across every census tract based on several dozen environmental, health, and other factors and can be used by federal agencies, states, and public health officials to identify those areas most in need of actions to improve community health.

President Joe Biden touted such screening tools during the 2020 campaign to benefit communities facing “multiple stresses” from climate change, inequality, and multiple air, water, and chemical pollution exposures.

While the HHS screening tool focuses on health disparities, Biden also directed his Council on Environmental Quality to develop a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool for agencies to identify disadvantaged communities based on metrics such as legacy pollution and access to renewable energy and clean transportation.

The administration has directed agencies to use that tool to provide help under Biden’s Justice40 environmental equity effort, which is to steer 40% of the overall benefits of clean energy, climate change, affordable housing, and certain other federal funding to poorer and marginalized populations disproportionately affected by pollution.

Expanding Justice40 Effort

The Biden administration had swept hundreds of federal programs into the Justice40 effort, including 13 HHS programs from a lead exposure registry for Flint, Mich., in the wake of its lead-contaminated water supply to a worker training program overseen by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Buchanan said the HHS effort builds on another tool—the Social Vulnerability Index—that the federal government already uses to score communities for their risk of disasters or outbreaks of disease and to help local officials identify communities likely to need support to better prepare and respond to disasters.

HHS also has begun updating its environmental justice strategy which the department hasn’t revisited since 2012, Buchanan said.

“It’s pretty old,” she said, and will be updated to provide “more concrete actions that we can put in place and implement.”

The department in April requested public feedback on issues that should be included in the roadmap to better reflect the Biden administration’s efforts “directing HHS to make achieving environmental justice part of its mission,” the notice said.

The strategic plan is to survey existing programs and authorities to better prioritize efforts to address environmental injustices and health inequities for people of color as well as other disadvantaged, vulnerable, low-income, marginalized, and indigenous populations.

The draft plan organizes HHS equity efforts into six elements, including a detailing of “the kind of services we can bring to bear” to help disadvantaged communities and how to best leverage ongoing environmental justice efforts in local communities, she said.

Buchanan said her HHS environmental justice office is coordinating the updating of the roadmap, but didn’t provide a timeline for finalizing the revision.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com