How Healthy is Your Town - Methods and Sources

To find the healthiest towns around, Chicago examined data in three categories-public health, environmental health, and safety-for 195 towns in the six-county metropolitan region. Because these towns face different kinds of challenges depending on their size, Chicago arranged them into five groups by population: 50,000-plus; 25,000 to 49,999; 15,000 to 24,999; 10,000 to 14,999; and under 10,000.

Chicago examined 15 different variables for each town, and the towns were then ranked in comparison with their peers. No points were added or deducted for three additional demographic variables: population, median household income, and the percentage of residences in a town that were owner occupied. Nor were points added for the presence of a Superfund site or a medical waste incinerator, since many of those sites are in flux. Note that the numbers on the charts represent actual data, not points assigned.

Using recommendations from experts in public health and epidemiology, Chicago assigned each variable a percentage value toward its final score based on the variable’s presumed effect on a town’s health. Those percentages are noted below.

To determine each town’s score, Chicago turned to Northwestern University’s Rich Gordon, an associate professor in the Medill School of Journalism who has conducted data analysis for various publications. Gordon ranked the towns in each population group by comparing them with their peers. (Where insufficient data was available-noted by N/A for “not available"-points were neither added nor deducted.) Keeping in mind the different weight assigned to each variable, Gordon then added the total points for each variable to get a score in each of the three categories. He then added those three numbers together to get a cumulative score.

To make the final scores easier to understand, Gordon recalibrated them on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the healthier the community. In the final category (towns under 10,000), Winfield and Glencoe each scored 85.6, the highest cumulative score on the charts. Chicago ranked Glencoe first and Winfield second because the former town earned a higher score in two of the three categories.

NONRANKING DATA

The demographic data-population, median household income, and percentage of residences that are owner occupied-was taken from the 2000 U.S. census. The presence of a Superfund site or a medical waste incinerator operating within a town has been noted on the charts. (See also “Burned Out” and “Superfund Sites”.) Data about Superfund sites and medical waste incinerators was compiled using information from the National Priorities List site for the EPA, the Web site http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl, and the Illinois EPA.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH

Air pollution sources (accounted for 8 percent of a town’s final score): This number, from the U.S. EPA, shows, as of March 30, 2005, the number of active facilities in a community that produce and release air pollutants. The industries represented here include electric power plants, steel mills, factories, refineries, and other facilities both large and small. (These numbers do not convey the effects of the chemicals being released.

For more information about local air pollution and hazardous waste, go to www.epa.gov/enviro.)

 

Hazardous waste sources (5.2 percent): Hazardous waste is toxic, corrosive, or ignitable solid waste that poses a threat to human health. In general, all companies and institutions that generate, transport, treat, store, or dispose of hazardous waste must provide information about their activities to state environmental agencies, which then forward that data to the U.S. EPA, the source for this information. The numbers on the chart represent only large-quantity generators and facilities that transferred or hauled hazardous waste as of April 30, 2005. Small-quantity generators, such as big apartment complexes, were not counted.

 

Water violations (8 percent): This figure, from the Illinois EPA, represents the total number of violations in a community from January 2000 through April 2005. For recording purposes, there are two categories of violations: chemical, which indicates problems with unhealthful substances in the water, and monitoring, which indicates problems with the procedures used by a community to supervise its water quality. The number on the chart combines both types of violations.

Many communities have multiple water systems; the number on the chart reflects the number of violations at the public water system that serves the most residents within a community. Some towns share the same water system and therefore have the same score. Note that whereas many public water systems in this area share water from Lake Michigan, the number of violations can vary widely from town to town depending on the age and quality of infrastructure and monitoring capabilities.

 

Industrial chemical releases (10.8 percent): The U.S. EPA Toxics Release Inventory records the release of all toxic chemicals into the air, water, or land reported within a community. The number on the chart represents pounds of toxics released during the year 2003. By definition, a “toxic” chemical causes death, disease, or birth defects in organisms that ingest or absorb it.

 

Open space (8 percent): Open spaces-defined as recreational areas, golf courses, space kept open for conservation, and bodies of water-provide residents with a place to exercise and play, while their trees and other greenery help make the air more breathable and dissipate urban heat. At Chicago’s request, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission calculated each town’s total open-space acreage (based on data from 2001). Then, by dividing the amount of open space into a town’s total acreage (as reported in the 2000 census), Chicago calculated the percentage of the town’s land devoted to open space.

 

PUBLIC HEALTH

Physicians per capita (4 percent): These figures, which Chicago bought from Medical Marketing Service-a private company used by the American Medical Association and others to track doctors-represent the number of doctors, defined as M.D.’s and doctors of osteopathy, working in a community (a commonly used gauge of a community’s health) as of April 2005.

 

Premature mortality (11.2 percent): The number on the chart represents a per capita percentage of a community’s population that experienced premature death (any death before the age of 65 is considered “premature"). Chicago calculated the percentages by dividing the number of premature deaths in a community into the total number of deaths in that community. All data, which was provided by the Illinois Department of Public Health, is for the 2002 calendar year.

 

Low birth weight (11.2 percent): Since many conditions in a community-such as air quality and access to good medical care-can affect a fetus, health professionals commonly use birth weight to assess a town’s well-being. The chart shows the percentage of babies born in 2003 in a community (as determined by the parents’ home address) who weighed less than 2,500 grams (five and a half pounds) at birth. The Chicago Department of Public Health provided all data for both the city and suburbs.

 

Incidence of cancer (5.6 percent): This number reflects all cases of cancer in a community over a five-year period (from 1997 to 2001) as reported to the Illinois Department of Public Health, which organizes data by ZIP Code. Chicago used each town’s-or, in the city, each region’s-primary ZIP Codes to calculate incidence of cancer. The chart shows the total number of cancer cases reported within a community or region; points were assigned on a per capita basis, using population data from the 2000 U.S. census.

 

Fast-food restaurants (4 percent): Using data provided by 13 different restaurant chains, Chicago calculated the total number of fast-food restaurants in a community, an indicator of potentially unhealthful eating habits. Those restaurants were: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Portillo’s, Popeyes, White Castle, Church’s, Long John Silver’s, Dairy Queen, Brown’s Chicken & Pasta, and Steak ‘n Shake. Points were assigned based on the number of fast-food restaurants per capita.

 

Percentage of population using public transportation (4 percent): Taking a train or bus to travel reduces air pollution and encourages exercise. The numbers on the chart were drawn from the 2000 census.

 

PUBLIC SAFETY

 

Crime rates: The numbers on the charts reflect total figures for violent (7.6 percent) and property crimes (3.8 percent) within a community, as detailed in Crime in Illinois 2003, from the Illinois State Police. (Data for Riverwoods and Long Grove was provided by the Village of Riverwoods and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, respectively.) Violent crimes encompass murder, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault and/or battery; burglary, theft, vehicle theft, and arson are classified as property crimes.

Traffic deaths (6.2 percent): These figures, provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation, reflect the total number of traffic-related deaths in 2003 on city streets, county roads, and highways in a town.

Liquor licenses (2.4 percent): Towns with higher numbers of liquor licenses tend to have a higher rate of traffic accidents. Points were assigned on a percentage per capita basis; the number on the chart reflects the number of liquor licenses issued in a community to bars, restaurants, retail stores, and caterers operating as of February 2005. Most data was provided by the Illinois Department of Revenue. Information for Kenilworth, Sleepy Hollow, and South Holland-which granted no liquor licenses-came from those villages themselves.

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