Press Release

Landmark Studies on Transit, Energy and Nutrition Policies are Focus of New Grants

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The Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, today announced nearly $400,000 in grants to four organizations to conduct health impact assessments (HIAs). The assessments will identify and address potential and often overlooked health implications of policy proposals including farm-to-school food legislation, energy development, smart-metering technology for electric utilities and urban transportation plans.

The projects, to be conducted in Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky and Oregon, are at the leading edge of a growing movement in the United States in which governments, non-profit groups and other organizations use HIAs to help ensure that decision makers craft public policies and projects that avoid unintended consequences and unanticipated costs. These four awards bring the Health Impact Project's investments in this field to more than $1.5 million for 2010.

"An HIA identifies the benefits and consequences of government decisions that fall outside the traditional scope of public health," said Aaron Wernham, M.D., director of the Health Impact Project. "These grants will give policy makers powerful tools to weigh the pros and cons of a proposal, identify health opportunities and tradeoffs and ensure that their decisions achieve the greatest benefits for people in affected communities."

The newly-funded HIAs are part of a diverse portfolio of projects occurring across the country. Currently, through funding from the Health Impact Project, HIAs are being conducted on proposals for public transit systems; a county agricultural plan; a land-use plan to redevelop an abandoned factory site; proposed state "cap-and-trade" regulations and a state budget process. It is expected that a second round of funding and call for proposals will be released in early 2011.

"Some of the decisions that have the greatest impact on our ability to be healthy are made by leaders outside the fields of health and health care," said Michelle A. Larkin, J.D., M.S., R.N., senior program officer and director of the public health team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "HIAs give leaders outside the health sector the information they need to factor health into a decision and can help them create safer, healthier communities throughout the United States."

The four projects announced today by the Health Impact Project include:

  • The first-ever HIA on a major metropolitan transportation and comprehensive growth plan will be led by the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development (CQGRD) at the Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Architecture. The Center will examine how PLAN 2040—which is being conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission, the local intergovernmental coordination agency—will impact a range of health issues, such as injury and asthma rates, and the risks of obesity and diabetes. PLAN 2040 integrates multiple aspects of regional planning, including transportation and land use; housing; greenspace; and water and air quality through the year 2040. A final HIA is expected in September 2011.
  • The study by the Green River District Health Department in Owensboro, KY, is the first to address the overall health impacts that may result from a coal gasification project. Rather than burning coal, gasification techniques utilize a technology that converts coal into a substitute or synthetic natural gas. Together, the proposed plants—Cash Creek, Kentucky NewGas and Indiana Gasification—have the potential to affect nearly 500,000 people living nearby. The HIA will examine important health tradeoffs that could be associated with the planned projects. These include the benefits they could bring to the health of area residents as a result of employment opportunities and subsequent increase in income, health care access and local tax revenue, as well as the risks posed by any emissions produced. This HIA will provide practical recommendations for actions that could be taken to maximize the benefits and minimize any potential harm from these projects. The HIA's recommendations will be included in a final report scheduled to be completed by February 2011, and can inform lawmaker's decisions concerning these plants.
  • "Smart meters" may help electric utilities improve the reliability of the power grid and encourage conservation during peak-demand periods, but the health risks and benefits of this technology have not yet been studied. That is why the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership at Boston Medical Center plans to produce a unique HIA of a pilot program run by Illinois' largest electric utility, Commonwealth Edison. The assessment will measure the health effects of this technology in western metropolitan Chicago, in particular how these innovations could protect customers from potentially life-threatening exposure to heat or cold. The HIA also will look at the impact of energy prices on vulnerable populations such as the elderly, low-income or disabled, and the potential for this technology to increase or decrease the utility's quality of service. The findings, expected in mid-2011, will become a model for understanding the potential impacts of widespread implementation. The grantee and Chicago's non-profit Citizens Utility Board will collaborate on the HIA, disseminate the findings and make recommendations based on what was learned from the assessment to the Illinois Commerce Commission, the regulatory body monitoring the pilot program.
  • Upstream Public Health, a public policy non-profit based in Portland, OR, will conduct a novel HIA of proposed legislation in Oregon that would provide state funds to purchase locally-grown foods for schools and set up school teaching gardens. The lessons learned from this project could be applied to other food and agricultural policies being considered by states across the nation. The goal of the HIA is to inform state lawmakers and examine how the proposed law would impact child nutrition in public schools and the economic health of rural communities. The analysis will examine how new purchases of local foods, especially fruits and vegetables, will impact a variety of diet-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity. In addition, the HIA will consider how increased local food purchasing could best benefit the health and well-being of economically-depressed rural communities. The full report is expected to be available in March 2011.

The The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 35 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. (www.rwjf.org).