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Environmental Factor, May 2012

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Columbia University unveils NPL mapper

By Rebecca Wilson

Screenshot of the mapper

The mapper allows users to zoom in for larger views of areas surrounding hazardous waste sites. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Golden)

Meredith Golden

Urban and regional planner Meredith Golden (Photo courtesy of Meredith Golden)

Researchers at the NIEHS-funded Columbia University Superfund Research Program (SRP) have developed a new online mapper capable of displaying population and environmental characteristics of the areas surrounding more than 1,500 hazardous waste sites on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List (NPL). Meredith Golden led the research team in combining data from several agencies to create a clickable map with a powerful zooming function that allows users to learn about communities near NPL sites across the country.

Golden is a senior staff associate at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), a center within The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Building a better application

The researchers used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping techniques to render data in a user-friendly way that is accessible to researchers, regulators, and the general public. Land use and environmental data are provided by the EPA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and other SRP centers. Population and demographic data is derived from U.S. Census grids.

Armed with this information, the researchers drew one- and four-mile radii perimeters, or buffers, around the sites. The buffer radii are based on those used most frequently within scientific literature and by EPA’s target distance limit in assessing potential adverse health effects from air and groundwater exposures.

“Using the actual footprint of the NPL site provides a more accurate estimation of potentially exposed populations,” says Golden. “It’s much better than other approaches, which draw concentric circles only from the center of the site, regardless of the site’s actual shape.”

Addressing needs within the SRP community and beyond

This mapping application grew out of the recognition that, to improve public health, regulators responsible for cleaning up Superfund sites need to identify susceptible populations and evaluate their risks. These populations can benefit from focused educational and engagement activities. Recent technological advances allow for increasingly sophisticated applications of computer mapping and modeling techniques, so it is possible to identify the characteristics of populations living in proximity to the actual boundaries of sites.

One of the benefits of this map is the versatility of data input. “If one group has more detailed information for an area, it’s easy to add it in,” Golden said. The mapper can integrate new data provided by the EPA, USGS, or SRP centers from their ongoing work with individual sites. However, updates do require time and funding. Right now Columbia is working on adding new NPLs and updating the demographics with 2010 data.

The addition of analytical capabilities is next, according to Golden. Currently, users can visually compare results from several sites, but Golden would like to see a query feature that allows for more precise assessments.  The researchers will also be making the jump to a JavaScript-based code to keep up with technological advances.   

“Mapping applications can greatly benefit the assessment and remediation of Superfund sites,” says Golden. “I’m hoping that in the near future, NIEHS will host a mapping and data workshop for all agencies working on Superfund issues, so that we can coordinate our efforts and make the most of geospatial technology.”

Golden will share her data in the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) webinar titled “Mapping and Environmental Public Health: Visualizing Health Disparities” May 7, 12:00–1:30 p.m. EDT.

(Rebecca Wilson is an environmental health information specialist with MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and Worker Education and Training Program.)

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