Making the Case for Health Impact Assessments

Publication: ScienceInsider

Author: Daniel Strain


09/09/2011 - In 2007, developers of a planned senior-housing project in Oakland, California, decided to move the entrance from adjacent to a busy highway to a quiet courtyard. The change would make it safer for residents as they walked to and from home. The idea, from an Oakland-based group called Human Impact Partners, addressed a small but nonetheless important health concern that might otherwise have been ignored.

A report released yesterday by the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) provides a ringing endorsement of such efforts, called a Health Impact Assessment (HIA). The report not only provides guidelines for conducting these analyses, but also argues for their value on both public and private construction projects, from urban farmers' markets to federal highways.

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The biggest obstacle facing HIAs may be the status quo, although the report notes that federal laws could already accommodate them. The U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to conduct environmental impact statements on threats or boons to "the quality of the human environment" as well as the natural environment. That requirement has largely fallen by the wayside, says committee member Aaron Wernham, director of the Health Impact Project, a joint venture of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which helped pay for the study. He says the problem is often that particular mission agencies lack the expertise to explore the health consequences of their actions. "Health needs to be at the table," says Wernham

Still, some experts have reservations about rolling HIAs into the NEPA process. "People are concerned that health impact assessments not become overly bureaucratic and not be another box that's checked off in a process," says Wernham.

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Read the full article Making the Case for Health Impact Assessments on the ScienceInsider's Web site.

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