Environmental Quality


Environmental health consists of preventing or controlling disease, injury, and disability related to the interactions between people and their environment. Environmental factors can include air quality, healthy homes, water quality, appropriate waste disposal, climate change, and sustainability [1]. Evidence suggests that proximity to green space provides tangible health benefits [2].


The District of Columbia is a national leader in sustainability, having achieved a 4-star community rating through Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating (STAR) Communities in 2014 [3]. Sustainable DC 2.0 is a plan that outlines long-term sustainability goals through the year 2032 and strategies for achieving them [4].

The DC Healthy People 2020 goals for this topic area include:

1. People live free from negative health outcomes due to environmental factors.
2. District residents experience a healthy environment.

An urban environment with older housing stock presents substantial challenges in ensuring environmental health. Exposure to toxins in the environment can leave lasting effects on overall health, and is especially impactful for children. Healthy environments have traditionally been built inequitably, and those who are working toward the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies may combat past wrongs through environmental justice [3]. This ensures that everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, work, and play [5].

Air and Water Quality

Clean air and water support healthy brain and body function, growth, and development. Air pollutants such as fine particulate matter, ground-level ozone, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and greenhouse gases can harm our health and the environment [6].  Air pollution is associated with increased asthma rates and can aggravate asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other lung diseases, damage airways and lungs, and increase the risk of premature death from heart or lung disease [7]. The CDC’s Tracking Network calculates that a 10% reduction in fine particulate matter could prevent over 13,000 deaths per year in the US [8].

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, medicines, chemicals, lead, and pesticides in water also pose threats to well-being and quality of life [9]. While drinking water safety is improving, a 2012 study estimates that contaminants in drinking water sicken up to 1.1 million people per year [7]. Improper medicine disposal, chemical, pesticide, and microbiological contaminants in water can lead to poisoning, gastro-intestinal illnesses, eye infections, increased cancer risk, and many other health problems [9].

Poor surface water quality can also make lakes unsafe for swimming and wild fish unsafe for consumption. Nitrogen pollution and harmful algae blooms create toxins in water, which can lead to rashes, stomach or liver illness, respiratory problems, and neurological effects when people ingest or come into contact with polluted water.

The Department of Energy and the Environment enforces environmental laws across ten District program areas such as the DC bag tax and styrofoam ban (products and packaging) and energy benchmarking, which requires certain entities to submit periodic District Benchmark and Compliance Reports related to proper energy use. A total of 357 notices of infraction were issued in 2017 [13].

Climate Change

Climate change influences human health and disease in numerous ways, for example some existing health threats will intensify and new health threats will emerge. Not everyone is equally at risk, and we know that some communities are more vulnerable to the threats based on age, economic resources, and location [10]. As the climate changes, heatwaves are longer and more frequent; and rainstorms are more intense. DC is susceptible to three types of flooding: riverine, coastal, and rainfall. Climate change is increasing the likelihood of all these events to occur [11]. The health effects include respiratory disease, cardiovascular health impacts, injuries, and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the distribution of food-borne illness, waterborne illness, other infectious diseases, and even mental health [10].

The World Health Organization estimates that the health effects of climate change are expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 [12]. Extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people [12].

Increasingly variable rain patters also affect the supply of freshwater, the rate of production of food, and flood frequency and intensity [12].

Equity considerations are vital in combating the effects of climate change. Certain groups are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and emergency preparedness plans must incorporate continuous community perspectives in order to tailor any prevention and response interventions.

The Resilient DC Plan outlines a vision for DC where the District is prepared for the impacts of climate change and where residents and businesses take bold action to combat its causes. Climate Ready DC is an important plan that incorporates equity into preparedness efforts and actions to support preparedness and response to new, climate change-related weather events such as heatwaves, severe storms, and flooding.

Promising Practices & Policies

• EH-I Eliminate environmental health threats such as mold, lead, and carbon monoxide in at least half of the District’s affordable housing.



• EH-II Identify existing laws, regulations, and policies that conflict with sustainability goals and areas where new authority is required.


• EH-III Green industrial areas and create green buffers between industrial use and residential neighborhoods.


• EH-IV Improve enforcement of air quality regulations, especially on industrial uses.


• EH-V Conduct health impact assessments for new developments and renovations

Funding Opportunities

• Sustainable DC Innovation Project Grants

• DC Sustainable Energy Utility Rebates

• Utility Affordability Programs

• Solar for All

Citations & Additional Data Resources

1. Healthy People 2020. Environmental Health. 2016

2. DC Health Equity Report 2018

3. DC Healthy People 2020 Framework

4. Sustainable DC

5. Environmental Protective Agency. Environmental Justice Background. 2019

6. Environmental Protection Agency. Air Topics. 2019

7. County Health Rankings. Air and Water Quality. 2018

8. CDC. Outdoor Air: Health Impacts of Fine Particles in Air. 2019

9. Environmental Protection Agency. Water Topics. 2019

10. CDC. Climate Effects on Health. 2014.

11. Resilient DC Strategy

12. WHO. Climate Change and Health. 2018.

13. DC Department of Energy. Notice of Infractions in Fiscal Year 2017. 2018

Photo Credits:

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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