Washington State Leads with New Health Justice Mapping Tool

BY ON February 19, 2019

map of all counties in Washington State

Several years ago, I wrote about an environmental justice mapping tool called EJ Screen. It was during the time of the Obama administration; developed under the leadership of EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy.

Under the Trump administration, environmental policy is changing, and it’s taken a major slide backwards. But all hope is not lost. Other entities are stepping in to fill the void with new tech and methods to help the public learn more about the connection between where they live and their health risks.

Using the model developed by the California EPA, called CalEnviroScreen, the state of Washington put together a coalition of stakeholders to create the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map.

The Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) at the University of Washington, government agencies, and organizations serving underrepresented populations and disadvantaged people, joined forces during a two-year period to get the tool up and running.

The groups involved in giving feedback cover a wide demographic cross-section. Included are Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinx and Native Americans. A key component of the strategy is to have disparate communities of color unite to drive solutions to climate change and environmental justice.

The mapping tool is free to the public. It is online and interactive so communities can determine where they stand in terms of being located near a toxic site, exposure to poisonous chemicals, density of automobile pollution, and more. All that’s needed is a zip code.

Using the data from “census tracts,” a cumulative environmental health impact score is arrived at for each area, yielding a comparative environmental health risk factor across communities.

Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map example

I tested the map out, and was impressed with how many different ways I could cross-reference stats.

I specifically looked at an area that had the highest rank of 10 for risk factors. The population demographic can then be broken down by age, sex, and race. For the locale I picked, I learned that 57 percent of the residents were Native American, 10 percent were Latinx, 6 percent were multiracial, and the remainder were white. Drilling down further, descriptors showed:

  • No high school diploma was rated at 7.
  • Living in poverty was rated at 9.
  • Unemployment was rated at 10.
  • Children living in poverty was rated 9.
  • Low birth weight was rated at 7.

I spoke with Deric Gruen, Program Director at Front and Centered (previously known as Communities of Color for Climate Justice), one of the key groups working on the project. The group’s principles page features the statement, “Who writes the rules matters.”

My key questions involved how other states could build on the Washington state model, specifically to track children in at risk communities. I already understood the concept of how using health data overlaid with pollution stats, and tied to socio-economic factors, could give a robust picture of what was happening on the ground.

Gruen suggested connecting with those at the state level of government to see if such a project could be considered, in partnership with the departments of health and environmental quality, community based organizations, and an in-state college or university that would be interested in such an endeavor.

Gruen pointed to the need to transition off of fossil fuels, put clean energy in areas where pollution is the worst, and be proactive about which communities get funding and which bear a disproportionate burden.

While Washington state is upping the game on engaging public awareness of the environmental crisis, its governor is considering a run for the presidency. If it hasn’t yet hit your radar, Governor Jay Inslee has been in the media stating that climate change would be the focal point of his candidacy.

As the Green New Deal emphasizes, there can be groups of people working with both government and businesses to fight global warming and to strengthen the economy.

Both are essential to our children’s future.

Photo courtesy of Washington State Department of Health


TOPICS: Social Justice, Washington State