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Environmental Review and Health Impact Assessments

HN Online Guide

The environmental review process provides another way for local officials to address health issues when they are considering land-use plans and development proposals. Environmental review is intended to ensure that decision-makers understand and account for a project’s environmental consequences, including its effects on health.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is the environmental protection law most commonly applied to land-use decisions in California.37  Under CEQA, local officials may not approve projects as proposed if there are feasible alternatives or mitigation measures that would substantially lessen significant environmental effects — unless local officials adopt a “statement of overriding considerations” that particular social or economic factors override the environmental concerns.

Based on the findings of the environmental review, local agencies can require that a project include specific measures to mitigate the potential effects on public health, such as exposure to air pollution or safety risks to pedestrians and bicyclists from auto traffic. The public is entitled to review the environmental documents prepared for local decision-makers and offer comments on the analysis of environmental effects and the feasibility and effectiveness of project alternatives or mitigation measures.

In addition to conducting a traditional environmental review of planning and land-use projects, some communities are using a new review tool, known as a Health Impact Assessment (HIA), in the planning process. The Health Impact Assessment provides a framework for local officials to determine the potential positive and negative effects of a proposed policy, plan or development project on human health and how those impacts might be distributed within the population.38

While not required by state law, local agencies can choose to conduct a Health Impact Assessment in tandem with the environmental review process to determine how a project could specifically affect health and then develop alternatives and mitigation measures that could reduce or eliminate its health effects.

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