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Public Health and Brownfields

What Are Brownfields?

Brownfields are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as "abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination."

Brownfield properties have a significant effect on local economies and property development. At the local government level, the responsibility for revitalizing brownfields often lies with the planning, zoning, or economic development office. However, local public health departments can have a strong role in supporting redevelopment efforts while assuring public safety.

There are brownfield properties in every community. Both tax assessors and taxpayers easily recognize the economic effects of brownfields on neighborhood property values. However, the public health impacts of these properties can be equally as important. The task of investigating, cleaning up, and drawing businesses back to these properties is very large. Efforts that support the redevelopment of brownfields also support the interests of public health.

Brownfield Redevelopment Protects Public Health

There are many potential health hazards on brownfield properties. Most brownfields have physical health hazards, such as uncovered holes, unsafe structures, and sharp objects. Past industrial activities can leave behind chemical contamination or drums of chemical wastes. When people enter these properties, they may be injured or exposed to toxic chemicals. While most adults show little interest in entering these properties, children often use brownfields as playgrounds and places to explore.

Public health agencies also play an important role in the development of environmental cleanup regulations. In recent years, increased flexibility in cleanup regulations has meant that some properties may have less stringent cleanup requirements than others, depending on their significance to public health and the environment.

Cleaning up environmental contamination can be very expensive. Without incentives for cleanup and redevelopment, contaminated properties may continue to pose public health hazards long into the future. For this reason, brownfield redevelopment programs can protect public health by removing health hazards from our communities.

Range of Public Health Involvement

  • For many brownfield properties the problems and solutions may be obvious. For these properties there may be little or no need for direct health agency involvement.
  • For uncontaminated properties with lingering health questions, evaluation by health agencies may reduce unwarranted concerns about redevelopment.
  • For many brownfield properties, the intended future land use can determine what level of contamination poses a health hazard. For these properties, the health agency's involvement can assure that redevelopment proceeds in a way that is protective of public health.
  • For properties with widespread and complex contamination problems, health agencies can play an important role in recognizing hazards, evaluating health risks, and recommending appropriate cleanup actions.

For More Information

Printable version of this fact sheet P-44980 (PDF, 34 KB)

Last revised September 22, 2016