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EPA’s EnviroAtlas Helps Communities and Citizens Make the Eco-Health Connection

Apr 16, 2020 | Guest Author

The following was written by Jessica Daniel, Environmental Protection Specialist in EPA’s Office of Research and Development in Durham, NC,

The environment contributes to human health and well-being through benefits such as clean water, clean air, and protection from natural hazards. These benefits are also known as ecosystem goods and services. This year, as we celebrate the international 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the US EPA also marks 50 years of protecting human health and the environment. Part of EPA’s work includes research to help citizens harness the power of data through tools like EnviroAtlas. This free, web-based resource includes a suite of interactive tools for exploring important human-environment connections that can help communities make informed decisions about the places where we live, learn, work, and play.

EnviroAtlas includes two flagship tools, the Interactive Map and Eco-Health Relationship Browser, which are easy to use and put a wealth of data at users’ fingertips. The Browser includes robust data from over 700 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. It is an interactive tool that enables users to answer the question: Why should I care? by exploring the science-backed connections between human health and ecosystem services. EnviroAtlas users can select a topic that they care about from among four ecosystems, 6 ecosystem services, and over 30 human health outcomes, to see how it relates to other topics. Users can also select the linkages between topics to reveal specific information about the scientific studies supporting each connection, with citations for those studies. EnviroAtlas also provides an overarching bibliography for the tool, improving transparency and access to the science.

For example (Fig. 1 below), selecting ‘Forests’ shows that forests provide ’Water Hazard Mitigation,’ ‘Recreation and Physical Activity,’ ‘Water Quality,’ ’Air Quality,’ and ‘Aesthetics and Engagement with Nature.’ Further selecting the ecosystem service ‘Recreation and Physical Activity’ reveals linkages to decreases in risk factors for depression, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease while increasing positive factors such as happiness and longevity. Understanding these linkages, which come directly from the scientific literature, can help communities make healthful decisions. For example, planting trees in schoolyards that can have a multitude of benefits for students, from positive effects on mental health and cognitive functioning, to shading on hot days.

The scientific literature incorporated into the Browser is routinely reviewed and updated; the latest update, which is currently underway, will cover scientific literature published between 2016-2018. New health outcomes, including ‘Vision’, and new eco-health linkages, such as that between ’Air Quality’ and ‘Diabetes,’ will also be added to the tool in the next update.

The EnviroAtlas online Interactive Map helps community members to investigate further these eco-health connections and to review and compare related spatial trends across the U. S. This online interactive mapping application makes over 500 data layers readily accessible to anyone who has a computer/tablet and Internet access. With no GIS skills required, citizens and government staff alike can explore indicators of ecosystem services like heat mitigation, clean air, and clean and plentiful water, as well as potential stressors to the local environment and community.

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Figure 1: Screenshots of the Eco-Health Relationship Browser showing the Forest ecosystem and connections (top left) and the ecosystem services associated with Recreation and Physical Activity.

For instance, communities interested in heat stress could use a map like ‘Percent green space in ¼ square kilometer’ (Fig 2) to identify where there is adequate green space to mitigate heat (green areas) and where a lack of green space may result in urban heat islands (red areas). Additionally, communities interested in resiliency and potential risk to populations near contaminated sites could use maps like the one below (Fig 3) showing Superfund Sites in floodplain areas. The EnviroAtlas ‘Estimated Floodplains’ map fills in gaps between FEMA Flood Hazard data, helping communities identify nearby sites and populations that may be vulnerable. Available use cases help users explore these types of examples and contexts for applying EnviroAtlas data.

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Figure 2. A screenshot of the EnviroAtlas Interactive Map, showing the data layer “Percent green space within ¼ square kilometer” in the St. Louis, MO community.

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Figure 3: Map image showing FEMA USA Flood Hazard Areas, EnviroAtlas Estimated Floodplains in the US and Superfund NPLs (includes actual and proposed sites, and those being screened for inclusion) in Charleston/North Charleston, SC. FEMA has developed preliminary flood hazard data that will cover the North Charleston area once it becomes effective.

Because EnviroAtlas is such a powerful informational tool, EPA researchers developed a complementary suite of educational materials for K-12 and undergraduate classrooms. They include four lesson modules, student handouts, supplementary activities, and teacher scripts, all of which align with all 50 state science educational standards. One lesson module based on the Browser incorporates technology, going outdoors, and an interactive hands-on activity. The activity challenges the idea that protecting ecosystems is purely a conservation goal and instead provides evidence to support the idea that protecting ecosystem health can also improve a vast array of human health outcomes, from reduced risk of multiple cancer types to better mental health. In the digital portion of this “Connecting Ecosystems and Human Health” activity, students spend time exploring the interactive EnviroAtlas Eco-Health Relationship Browser. Rather than researching a pre-determined set of topics, students can choose topics that they care about that may directly impact themselves or their loved ones. By focusing on these personal connections and strengthening their understanding of how people are connected to nature, the Browser helps make abstract concepts more relatable. During the outdoor portion of the lesson, participants create a tangible web of connections between ecosystem services and human health outcomes (Fig 4). At the end of the activity, one participant remarked: “I didn’t realize that protecting the environment meant protecting the people that I love.”

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Figure 4: Overhead view of students participating in the outdoor portion of the “Connecting Ecosystems and Human Health” activity, where students create a web of ecosystem service and human health connections.

The EnviroAtlas Interactive Map and Eco-Health Relationship Browser are robust and adaptable tools that can be used to address an array of community needs. Even international communities have found EnviroAtlas resources to be useful - the “Connecting Ecosystems and Human Health” educational activity was adapted for use in Bosnia as part of the United Nations Environment Program and the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The activity was also used by the United States Embassy in Sarajevo on World Environment Day. To date, almost 5,000 people from ages 10-100 have participated in this activity and learned about environment and health connections in their own lives.

EnviroAtlas tools and resources provide a reservoir of environment and health expertise in accessible formats. They can help communities achieve a range of goals from planning neighborhood revitalization projects, to addressing public health disparities, and providing outreach and education on geographically relevant issues. EnviroAtlas is constantly growing, updating data, and providing new features in the interest of creating a useful resource for communities. Comments and feedback are always welcome, and the project team can be contacted through this webform. EnviroAtlas also regularly hosts “how-to” webinars – stay tuned for upcoming news and get a crash course in using EnviroAtlas tools by participating in our next webinar on June 17th. More information will be available soon!

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About Guest Author

NACCHO periodically invites guest authors to write first-person accounts of their work in public health. To submit your own story for consideration, please visit our form.

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