Mapping environmental injustices: pitfalls and potential of geographic information systems in assessing environmental health and equity

Environ Health Perspect. 2002 Apr;110 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):161-71. doi: 10.1289/ehp.02110s2161.


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been used increasingly to map instances of environmental injustice, the disproportionate exposure of certain populations to environmental hazards. Some of the technical and analytic difficulties of mapping environmental injustice are outlined in this article, along with suggestions for using GIS to better assess and predict environmental health and equity. I examine 13 GIS-based environmental equity studies conducted within the past decade and use a study of noxious land use locations in the Bronx, New York, to illustrate and evaluate the differences in two common methods of determining exposure extent and the characteristics of proximate populations. Unresolved issues in mapping environmental equity and health include lack of comprehensive hazards databases; the inadequacy of current exposure indices; the need to develop realistic methodologies for determining the geographic extent of exposure and the characteristics of the affected populations; and the paucity and insufficiency of health assessment data. GIS have great potential to help us understand the spatial relationship between pollution and health. Refinements in exposure indices; the use of dispersion modeling and advanced proximity analysis; the application of neighborhood-scale analysis; and the consideration of other factors such as zoning and planning policies will enable more conclusive findings. The environmental equity studies reviewed in this article found a disproportionate environmental burden based on race and/or income. It is critical now to demonstrate correspondence between environmental burdens and adverse health impacts--to show the disproportionate effects of pollution rather than just the disproportionate distribution of pollution sources.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Health*
  • Environmental Pollutants / adverse effects
  • Geography*
  • Humans
  • Information Systems*
  • Minority Groups
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • New York City
  • Public Policy
  • Refuse Disposal
  • Risk Assessment
  • Social Class*


  • Environmental Pollutants