Examining urban brownfields through the public health "macroscope"

Jill S. Litt, Nga L. Tran, Thomas A. Burke

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Efforts to cope with the legacy of our industrial cities-blight, poverty, environmental degradation, ailing communities-have galvanized action across the public and private sectors to move vacant industrial land, also referred to as brownfields, to productive use; to curb sprawling development outside urban areas; and to reinvigorate urban communities. Such efforts, however, may be proceeding without thorough investigations into the environmental health and safety risks associated with industrial brownfields properties and the needs of affected neighborhoods. We describe an approach to characterize vacant and underused industrial and commercial properties in Southeast Baltimore and the health and well being of communities living near these properties. The screening algorithm developed to score and rank properties in Southeast Baltimore (n = 182) showed that these sites are not benign. The historical data revealed a range of hazardous operations, including metal smelting, oil refining, warehousing, and transportation, as well as paints, plastics, and metals manufacturing. The data also identified hazardous substances linked to these properties, including heavy metals, solvents, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, plasticizers, and insecticides, all of which are suspected or recognized toxicants and many of which are persistent in the environment. The health analysis revealed disparities across Southeast Baltimore communities, including excess deaths from respiratory illness (lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, influenza, and pneumonia), total cancers, and a "leading cause of death" index and a spatial and statistical relationship between environmentally degraded brownfields areas and at-risk communities. Brownfields redevelopment is a key component of our national efforts to address environmental justice and health disparities across urban communities and is critical to urban revitalization. Incorporating public health into brownfields-related cleanup and land-use decisions will increase the odds for successful neighborhood redevelopment and long-term public health benefits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-193
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental health perspectives
Issue numberSUPPL. 2
StatePublished - 2002


  • Brownfields
  • Cumulative risk
  • Health disparities
  • Urban health
  • Waste management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis

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