The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity on Wednesday launched an environmental justice index, the latest initiative by federal healthcare agencies to place heightened importance on climate change and health equity issues.
The Environmental Justice Index, developed in partnership with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, analyzes cumulative environmental factors at the individual census tract-level so local public health officials “can identify and map areas most at risk for the health impacts of environmental burden,” according to the HHS release.
“Too many communities across our nation, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, continue to bear the brunt of pollution. Meeting the needs of these communities requires our focused attention and we will use the Environmental Justice Index to do just that,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement.
It’s the latest step for federal healthcare agencies in an effort to address public health challenges exacerbated by climate change.
The tool, which also aims to address the “cumulative impacts on health and health equity,” follows the CMS’ early August final inpatient payment rule, which published comments that it solicited from the public on issues like climate change and public equity.
Recently, the CMS and the HHS have made efforts to highlight social issues as driving factors for healthcare problems in the U.S. As part of goals set by the Biden administration, the HHS announced in June that it would prioritize 13 of its programs in the administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which focuses environmental initiatives on disadvantaged communities. The HHS’ climate change and health equity office, launched last year, was also a Biden administration initiative.
In April, the HHS asked hospitals and hospitals to pledge to voluntarily cut their carbon emissions in half by 2030 and to net zero emissions by 2050.
Other medical advocacy groups, like the American Medical Association, have called for national climate action. During its annual meeting in June, the AMA called climate change a “public health crisis that threatens the health and well-being of all people” and pledged to support climate justice initiatives.
Shortly after the AMA annual meeting, the Supreme Court curbed the nation’s environmental authority, ruling in a 6-3 vote that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have have the authority to regulate carbon emissions without specific Congressional approval. Becerra called the SCOTUS ruling a step backwards for public health.
Air pollution, built environment, potentially hazardous and toxic sites, socioeconomic status, minority status and transportation infrastructure are just some of the indicators that can be sorted in the EJI. Each tract is assigned a number score. For example, a tract with a score of 0.75 means that the census tract experiences worse cumulative effects of that factor than 75% of all other tracts nationally.
The tool highlights Flint, Michigan, as an example of a community facing environmental injustice and cites the city’s “century of environmental racism and injustice” in addition to Flint’s ongoing water crisis that began in 2014, which is disproportionately affecting low-income and Black residents.