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Brownfields and Public Health

Connecting Brownfields to Public Health

Community concerns about brownfield often center on public health issues. Areas with one or more brownfields commonly experience disinvestment over time. In addition to known, unknown or perceived environmental health threats from contaminants at a site, the area may experience hazards due to other community challenges, including:

  • Safety Risks. Abandoned and derelict structures, open foundations, compromised infrastructure or equipment (due to lack of maintenance, vandalism or deterioration), controlled substance sites (i.e., methamphetamine labs), and abandoned mine sites are examples of sites with safety risks. Proximity to flood zones or natural hazard areas may be of concern due to the potential to mobilize contaminants and contribute to structural deterioration.

  • Social and economic factors. Blighted areas with higher crime, vagrancy and/or vacancy rates lead to declining property values, reduce the local government tax base and the availability of social services in brownfield communities. Reduced social capital or lost community connections often contribute to a deteriorating quality of life for residents in brownfield areas.

  • Environmental health. Industrial production or commercial activity, such as emissions, transportation and goods movements, site or groundwater contamination, surface runoff, migration of contaminants, wastes dumped on site or natural hazards can exacerbate potential biological, physical, or chemical dangers from nearby brownfield sites.

EPA encourages communities to work with their local, state or tribal environmental regulators and public health agencies as part of their brownfield program activities.

Improving Public Health Requires Community Engagement

Incorporating public health improvements into the planning for brownfield assessment, cleanup and reuse can bring a community together and strengthen the redevelopment.

The site reuse planning process can be used to confront many health and safety issues. Local leaders and residents may recognize their brownfield site is only one of other public health or environmental hazards facing their community. Community engagement and other planning activities can help the community consider different opportunities for reusing the brownfield site (and perhaps other nearby properties) and how those opportunities will improve the safety and community health of existing and future residents.

Community engagement only works when the members involved understand the process, feel their concerns are heard, and see their goals reflected in the vision created for the site. Residents and community leaders, business and elected officials and those investing in brownfield revitalization may wish to establish a community advisory board to identify and discuss issues that require attention for long term investment. Local leader and investor attention to equitable development can help prevent displacement and create local avenues for employment that strengthen the local economy and reinvest in the community. As shown in the Brownfields to healthfields StoryMap, this reinvestment may include adding essential services such as access to healthcare to meet the needs of residents and create and sustain job and economic growth. Fresh and healthy food retail or food production opportunities can contribute to community and commercial activities focused on restoring vacant lands to safe and productive reuse.

Resident and local government officials may wish to address safety or crime issues near brownfields or high vacancy areas which affect residents and discourage investment. Community partnerships with law enforcement, crime mapping, community engagement and including design features that increase visibility, lighting and attract visitors may help counter crime.

Community engagement under EPA Brownfields Grants

When conducted under an EPA brownfields grant, the community engagement and involvement processes will focus on brownfield specific issues. The grant recipient may use public notice in newsletters, newspapers or community bulletin boards. They may organize neighborhood events or use existing local government meetings to discuss potential hazards/risks and steps involved for assessing, cleanup and reusing the site. These are useful opportunities to discuss community strengths and assets to preserve, as well as the community needs to be met. While solving a broader array of community issues may be beyond the scope of eligible brownfield grant funded activities, the community engagement process provides a valuable setting for discussing ways brownfield assessment, cleanup and revitalization contribute to creating safe and secure neighborhoods for current and future residents.

Common Types of Brownfields and their Contaminants

Do you know if there are brownfields in your community?

If so, how can your community begin to assess, cleanup and reuse these sites?

Understanding a property’s history can help you identify past activities, use of materials, and disposal practices. This information enables you to anticipate the contaminants that could pose health and environmental risks to people to animals when exposed.

Knowing the anticipated environmental contaminants at a site can also reduce economic concerns. Without this information, liability concerns and costs of cleaning up brownfields will likely increase.

EPA's brownfield grant recipients report the types of past property uses found to be brownfields and the types of contaminants reported as part of brownfield assessment and cleanup activities. The type of cleanup to remove contaminants and reduce exposures depends on the planned reuse, law, policy and program requirements and site-specific factors such as contaminant levels and distribution. Citizen guides explain a range of cleanup approaches. Brownfield grant recipients also report where they have successfully reused brownfield sites after cleanup .

As community members become familiar with the EPA Brownfield and Land Revitalization program, they wish to reach out to their EPA Regional office, their own State, Tribal or local brownfields program if they have questions or need help.

  • The EPA funds technical assistance providers serve different regions of the country and Tribes to answer questions and help communities understand important steps in the assessment and cleaning up of brownfield properties for redevelopment and future use. TAB
  • Residents and local leaders also may wish to contact their State or Tribal brownfield experts. State report and Tribal report
  • Leaders of nearby communities with past brownfield grants or ongoing brownfield projects may help by sharing their experiences. The Brownfield grant fact sheet tool identifies past project funding. Grant Factsheet tool
  • The EPA's Cleanups In My Community (CIMC) provides a national map which highlights past and current brownfield grant recipients that reported EPA activities.

Contaminant Information

While not an exhaustive list of all contaminants, additional links summarize listed and additional contaminants and hazardous materials commonly reported at brownfields undergoing cleanup. Links to additional scientific, technical and general information about contaminants from EPA and federal sister agencies are provided below.

Arsenic [ CDC ]

Asbestos [ EPA ]

Lead [ EPA ]

Petroleum and Hydrocarbons [ EPA ]

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) [ ATSDR ]

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)[ EPA ]

Volatile Organic Compounds [ EPA ]

Additional contaminants less commonly reported as part of brownfield cleanups include:

Cadmium [ EPA IRIS ]

Chromium [ ATSDR ]

Dioxin [ EPA ]

Mercury [ EPA ]

Pesticides [ EPA ]

The Brownfields Road Map introduces information about the types of cleanup conducted at brownfields. Information about additional more extensive cleanup conducted as part of Superfund and other contaminated land remediation can be found at the Contaminated Site Cleanup Information (CLU-IN) site. The site also provides detail about emerging contaminants, contaminated site cleanup practices and a range of site assessment and characterization methods, tools and remediation technologies.

Can the Presence of Brownfields Affect Crime Rates?

Brownfield grant recipients often suggest the presence of vacant or abandoned brownfields is linked to increased crime rates in the same area. While their various anecdotal experiences may imply a relationship, limited research exists on this specific topic.

EPA has prepared two fact sheets to assist communities interested in studying changes in crime rates and criminal activity as they relate to brownfield site assessment and revitalization.