Health impact assessments (HIAs) “bring together scientific data, health expertise, and public input to understand how a proposed plan, policy, program, project, or action could affect the public’s health.” They consider broad influences, including social, economic and environmental factors and equip decision-makers with valuable information to make policy choices promoting human and environmental health, especially when conducted early on in a proposed action or project.
Funded by the Health Impact Project, a collaboration between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Network for Public Health Law – Western Region collaborated with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) to explore and analyze opportunities to imbed health considerations and HIAs into environmental reviews. These reviews are required for major public and many private projects or actions (e.g., building and road developments, waste removal, energy and mining) that may significantly impact the human environment pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and 17 equivalent state environmental policy acts (SEPAs). These laws apply to a wide swath of federal, state, tribal and local governmental agencies and often entail conducting extensive assessments partially related to human health.
In furtherance of environmental laws, HIAs can provide decision-makers with critical information to identify project alternatives or potential mitigation measures. They can also help uncover broader effects on the environment and community or larger health impacts.
This Project will be the subject of an upcoming Network for Public Health Law webinar: Integrating Health Impact Assessments via Environmental Policy Acts, on January 19. The webinar will examine how HIAs and related health impacts may “legally fit” with environmental reviews required by NEPA and SEPAs.
Although no statutory or regulatory laws explicitly require including HIAs during these processes, there are multiple legally-supported opportunities to incorporate health analyses, especially early on, into environmental reviews required by NEPA and SEPAs. For example, NEPA’s express statutory language promotes efforts that “stimulate the health and welfare of man,” which evinces Congress’ intent, in part, to protect human health. Together, these paths present extensive opportunities for governmental agencies and private sector entities to integrate the evaluation of health impacts into environmental reviews through HIAs and related approaches.
This project culminated in a legal report, Integration of Health & Human Impact Assessments Via Environmental Policy Acts, highlighting 10 potential paths to incorporate health impacts and HIAs into legally-required environmental reviews. For example, NEPA mandates that federal agencies assess the present, past or future cumulative effects of proposals and actions, which may include a review of the potential health impacts. Public comment periods at various stages of NEPA and SEPA processes also permit individuals, agencies and advocacy organizations to raise health concerns, which then may necessitate investigation during the review process.
In addition to the legal report, ASTHO colleagues are producing a report examining lessons learned, best practices and messaging points for incorporating HIAs into environmental reviews based on five case studies of previously conducted HIAs. Together these reports highlight the possible health and environmental benefits of an increased focus on health through the use of HIAs in environmental reviews in sectors not traditionally focused on health.
For more information on this project and HIAs:
This post was prepared by Kim Weidenaar, J.D., Deputy Director, Network for Public Health Law – Western Region, Public Health Law and Policy Program, Arizona State University. It is based on the findings of a report, Integration of Health & Human Impact Assessments Via Environmental Policy Acts, authored by James G. Hodge, Jr., J.D., LL.M., Kim Weidenaar, J.D., and Leila Barraza, J.D., M.P.H., Network for Public Health Law – Western Region.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.