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News / Health / Clark County Health

Vancouver ranks high for health risks due to environmental quality

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian environment and transportation reporter
Published: January 19, 2019, 6:02am
3 Photos
Exhaust pours out of a semi-truck as it leaves the Port of Vancouver on Friday. Areas near the port score poorly in a study that ranks health risks caused by environmental quality.
Exhaust pours out of a semi-truck as it leaves the Port of Vancouver on Friday. Areas near the port score poorly in a study that ranks health risks caused by environmental quality. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Vancouver is among the Washington cities where residents see the greatest health risks due to environmental quality, according to a new ranking and mapping tool from the state charting health risks at the neighborhood level.

Using state and national data, researchers combined 19 environmental, population and socioeconomic data points to score neighborhoods at the census tract level, and map the results.

Much of Vancouver earned a high score, with some of the riskiest neighborhoods between and around state Highway 500 and Fourth Plain Boulevard in central Vancouver or along Interstate 205.

The scoring is relative, according to researchers, and reflects the risk a given community faces based on that combination of environmental and social factors. It does not, the designers caution, measure any specific health burden or pollution levels, or how those factors are reflected in actual illnesses or injuries.

The indicators are a mix of environmental factors and population characteristics. The pollution data include lead risk and exposure, proximity to Superfund sites, area diesel emissions, particulate matter and traffic density, among others. On the population side, the data include infant birth weight and prevalence of death by cardiovascular disease, as well as race, unemployment and the costs of housing or transportation.

Those are standard measures of populations that are stressed, said Tina Echeverria with the state Department of Health, who manages a team in the department that tracks environmental health.

“Those are well established risky populations that are more vulnerable,” she said.

The prevalence of cardiovascular disease, for instance, is important to assessing environmental health because individuals with heart disease are at a higher risk of death when exposed to environmental stressors.

Likewise, burdensome transportation or housing costs are stressors that can lead to poor health outcomes, and can keep healthier food or health care out of reach.

The idea, Echeverria said, is activists, public officials and policy makers can use the information to get a better understanding of the problems their communities face and guide their efforts accordingly.

Clusters of census tracts with a score of 9 or 10 — meaning they’re in the 20th percentile for impact — include Longview, Centralia, and much of the area around Puget Sound, including Bremerton, Tacoma, Kent and south Seattle. In eastern Washington, the pattern continues for Yakima, the Tri-Cities and Spokane.

The high scores for urban areas speak to their density and level of industrialization, Echeverria said, but also to some of the map’s limitations.

For instance, better information on water quality, she said, would likely alter the relative scoring for agricultural areas or places where wells are more common.

“It’s definitely something that’s on our radar — the rural-urban divide,” she said.

The project is ongoing. Researchers hope to add data on noise pollution, proximity to state cleanup sites and food access, and others, as possible.

The research and mapping was done through a partnership of environmental and racial justice advocacy coalition Front and Centered, the University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, the state health and ecology departments and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Columbian environment and transportation reporter