Environmental health scientists have long known that people who live in lower-income city neighborhoods suffer a disproportionate share of the ill-health effects of air, water, and soil pollution.
Over the past 60 years, their neighborhoods—built to serve industrial workers when city factories were booming—have become reservoirs for displaced workers and low-wage service-sector employees as corporations moved jobs to the suburbs, the non-union South, and overseas. After being torn down, the abandoned factories became brownfields, their land poisoned by a century of unregulated toxic dumping.
Transit planners added insult to injuries by targeting the same neighborhoods for the interstate highways that bisected cities. Aided by discriminatory Federal Housing Authority mortgage policies and bank redlining, white residents used the new interstates to flee to America’s burgeoning suburbs along with many of the good jobs.
The remaining businesses were often the worst polluters—scrap metal processors, for instance. And new businesses willing to use the vacant land—warehouses and intermodal transfer facilities, for the most part—often polluted as much or more than the prior occupants due to their daily flow of 18-wheel diesel trucks.
In recent years, community activists in cities across the country have launched campaigns to combat the ill-health effects of this legacy, often under the banner of fighting environmental racism. Most of the worst-off neighborhoods are majority Black and Hispanic.
In Chicago this spring, several local groups on the city’s predominantly Hispanic Southeast side scored a major victory when outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) promising to consider the health impact of industrial and commercial projects before issuing permit approvals.
The conflict began three years ago when the city issued a permit allowing Reserve Management Group/Southside Recycling to build a scrap metal processing plant in the neighborhood. The Southeast Environmental Task Force, the South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, and People for Community Recovery filed suit, claiming that the company’s proposal to build the facility constituted discrimination based on race since the recycler’s original plant had previously been located in a gentrifying area of the city’s nearly all-white North Side.
At first, the city claimed that nothing in the law allowed them to block the permit. But then, local activists went on a 30-day hunger strike to protest the project, which garnered national attention.
In 2022, with help from the Environmental Protection Agency, Chicago’s health department weighed in with a report that concluded the company, which had a long history of violating Illinois emission standards, posed an “unacceptable risk” to community health. “In an already vulnerable community, the findings from the [health impact assessment] combined with the inherent risks of recycling operations and concerns about the company’s past and potential noncompliance are too significant to ignore,” Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, says. The city reversed its decision and denied the permit.
But the community’s lawyers soldiered on. The three-year consent decree signed this spring, which ends the original lawsuit, goes much further than putting the kibosh on one polluter. It gives Chicago until September 1 to issue a comprehensive report documenting the “environmental burdens, health conditions, and social stressors” in every corner of the city. The goal is to identify “Environmental Justice Neighborhoods” where the city’s departments will be required to change its planning, zoning, and land use policies to mitigate “environmental impacts from existing and new industrial developments.”
The agreement is “very inspirational for communities that are struggling with environmental racism across the country,” Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, told the Chicago Tribune. “This really could be a model for how cities [can] work together with impacted communities.”
Of course, it won’t provide immediate relief for the many acute and chronic conditions triggered by excessive air pollution in the neighborhood and others like it. They include elevated levels of heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, many cancers, and asthma, where acute attacks can be particularly devastating for children.
A new study in JAMA by researchers at Johns Hopkins University offers another way to address the needs of those suffering from conditions exacerbated by excessive air pollution: help them move to another neighborhood. The study gave 123 low-income families with asthmatic children in Baltimore housing vouchers that allowed them to move into low-poverty areas. Nearly all (106) eventually did.
They compared that group to 115 children who remained in their low-income neighborhood. The moved children, who ranged from 5 to 17, saw the number of severe asthma attacks cut nearly in half, with only 8.5 percent of the kids experiencing an attack requiring medical intervention in the three months after moving compared to 15.1 percent in the three months before moving. The number of days with severe symptoms was cut in half compared to the matched cohort.
They also looked at changes in lifestyle that might account for the sharp reduction in asthma attacks. Indoor particulate matter (often from smoking) did not change. There were reduced levels of mouse and cockroach allergens, but it did not affect the outcome. More than a third of the gains led to decreased levels of what researchers called “psychosocial stress”: better daytime and nighttime safety and greater social cohesion by going to more integrated schools.
“The [Baltimore] housing mobility program has been effective in addressing racism in housing and how changing physical and social environments can improve asthma outcomes,” an accompanying editorial in JAMA by Neeta Thakur and Adali Martinez of the University of California, San Francisco, pointed out. Unfortunately, the study did not evaluate what specific features of living in a more middle-class neighborhood led to the improvement.
So these are two approaches to improving health in low-income neighborhoods: One uses a land-use policy to improve the physical environment over time; the other helps people leave the areas that are making them sick. Which is better?
Robert Weinstock, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and the lead attorney in the Southeast Chicago neighborhood’s lawsuit against the city, says both approaches are valid. “You can move the people, or you can move the facilities. In Baltimore, they’re talking about moving the people. In Chicago, we’re talking about moving the facilities or regulating the ones that are there. We need a mix of both approaches for different situations.”
He also says Chicago’s consent decree offers a model for other big cities to address the ill-health effects of environmental racism. “HUD has never used its civil rights jurisdiction to identify violations stemming from industrial land use and pollution issues,” he says. “Advocates at the grassroots level have identified land use reform as a way to advance environmental justice. What’s new is HUD flexing its civil rights authority to require a municipality to directly address inequities that flow from its land use code.”