Love what you see? Follow PGN so you never miss a story.

Over the summer, federal health agencies launched the Environmental Justice Index (EJI), a tool to measure the total effect that environmental risks, such as air pollution and exposure to industrial toxins, have on communities. Developed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC, the EJI empowers community organizers to identify environmental justice issues in their communities and pinpoint the areas most affected by environmental risks. With access to this high-level data, they can advocate for just and evidence-based policy.

What is environmental justice?

Environmental justice aims to ensure that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income, are equally protected from environmental risks and have equal access to healthy environments. In the U.S., environmental inequities, like lack of access to clean water and proximity to hazardous industrial waste, disproportionately impact poor, Black, Latino, and Indigenous populations. Over time, these disparities contribute to a community’s environmental burden of disease—the total impact of environmental risks on health. The burden includes direct effects, like cancers caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and respiratory diseases triggered by air pollution or wildfire smoke. It also considers indirect effects, such as increased waterborne illnesses caused by extreme climate events like flooding.

The World Health Organization estimates that around a quarter of the world’s deaths are from health conditions related to or worsened by environmental factors—and that number is likely to increase as the effects of climate change grow.

Why is the Environmental Justice Index needed?

A community’s health is directly tied to its environment—the air people breathe, the water they drink, their ability to safely and easily travel to parks and grocery stores, and the safety of their homes. Understanding where and how environmental injustices exist is the first step toward eliminating inequity.

The EJI Explorer is a free tool that allows individuals and organizations to navigate data on how local environmental risks specifically impact the health of their communities. 

The EJI breaks the country into census tracts and assigns a score that ranks the total impact of environmental hazards on the community’s health. The index considers environmental, health, demographic, and socioeconomic factors and ranks each metric on a scale of 0 to 1, where a rating over 0.75 indicates a high risk. For example, a transportation infrastructure score of 0.77 means that the area is more severely impacted by substandard infrastructure—including a lack of walkability and high-traffic streets—than 77 percent of the country.   

Using the EJI to explore environmental impact on health in your community

When you open the EJI Explorer, you can search by state and county to find a specific census tract. The darker color indicates a higher EJI ranking. Once you’ve selected a census tract, you can explore the environmental, health, and socioeconomic factors that impact its EJI score. 

Screenshot of the EJI Explorer.

Let’s explore how to use the EJI tool by comparing neighboring census tracts (tracts 3123 and 3102) in Harris County, Texas, which contains Houston. Both tracts contain roughly 2,000 people. They also both have higher environmental burden ranks, driven by high air pollution and poor transportation infrastructure. These are environmental risks that communities throughout Harris County share. But that’s where similarities between these two areas end. Tract 3123, which is disproportionately Black with over a third of the population below the poverty line, has an EJI score of 0.93. Tract 3102 is disproportionately white and wealthy with an EJI score of 0.24. 

Screenshots comparing the EJI rankings of neighboring census tracts 3123 and 3102 in Harris County, Texas.

What’s driving the difference? Tract 3123 contains hazardous waste sites, experiences high rates of poverty and unemployment, has poor access to health care and internet, and has high rates of pre-existing chronic conditions worsened by environmental hazards, including asthma, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 

In the span of only a few minutes, the EJI Explorer provided us with high-level, concrete data on drastic environmental inequities between neighboring communities. This data can be used as an entry point to educate a community, build environmental advocacy platforms, and establish measurable goals toward environmental equity. At the bottom of the Explorer are EJI highlights, brief profiles of real-world environmental injustices—the Flint, Michigan, water crisis; industrial soil contamination in Warren County, North Carolina; and air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, California. These profiles show how the EJI can be used to build data-driven narratives about environmental justice in any community.