Brownfields - Hazards You May Never Have Heard Of

Brownfields are often abandoned or unused property that might be contaminated. Although they can be dangerous to your health and bad for nearby property values when cleaned up and redeveloped they have the potential to become a community asset.


Aaron Baker

May 7, 2021 • Updated Mar 17, 2022 • 4 min read

Find brownfields and other environmental hazards near you here

Overview#

Brownfields areoften abandoned or unused property that are contaminated or might be contaminated from a previous use. Types of previous use that can lead to potential contamination include residential housing, gas stations, manufacturers, dry cleaners, auto repair shops, mining, commercial buildings, and illegal dumping. The three most common contaminants found in brownfields are lead, petroleum, and asbestos but there are many other possible less common contaminants including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and arsenic.

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Living next to or in the vicinity of brownfields can have negative health effects as well as lower property values. Federal and state agencies provide grant opportunities to evaluate, clean up, and redevelop brownfields into greenspaces, residential housing, commercial or industrial uses. The redevelopment of brownfields can eliminate health hazards, increase property values, increase the local tax base, and create jobs. The redevelopment of contaminated brownfields like Berry Lane Park in Jersey City, New Jersey and the William F. Pennington Life Center in Fallon, Nevada has transformed contaminated sites that were abandoned for decades, into safe and productive components of the community.

Your Home and Brownfields#

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Health and Safety#

Contaminated brownfield sites can have serious negative health effects. The potential health effects of the eight most common contaminants include cancer, organ and body system damage, and birth defects. Exposure pathways include breathing vapor, dust, or soil particles; eating or drinking contaminated water, food, dust, or soil; and absorption through the skin from direct contact.

A study in Baltimore found significantly higher rates of mortality from cancer and respiratory diseases in communities with the highest density of brownfield sites compared to communities with the lowest density. In addition, brownfields can have physical health hazards including unsafe structures, sharp objects, and uncovered holes which can be especially hazardous for children.

Property Values#

In general, the research shows that brownfields lower nearby property values as well as property values throughout a neighborhood. A study of residential property values relative to the distance from brownfields in Cincinnati, Ohio found that all properties within 1,000 feet of a brownfield were devalued and those that were adjacent to brownfields were devalued by about 20%. Another study in Minnesota looked at over 150,000 residential and commercial properties and found that property values in the vicinity of brownfields were devalued by 8%.

As a result of disuse, brownfield sites are typically unsightly and are usually considered more difficult and risky to develop due to the uncertainty of the potential contamination. The risk and uncertainty can keep potential investors and developers away, and brownfields often remain undeveloped and a blight on communities.

What You Can Do#

Before purchasing property you should know if the property is a brownfield and/or if there are brownfields in the vicinity. According to the law (Conservation Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980), the purchaser of a contaminated property is liable for all potential cleanup regardless of whether or not the purchaser knew in advance that the property was contaminated. Because brownfields are typically abandoned commercial or industrial properties, there is usually evidence of the previous use including empty buildings, unused facilities, and/or abandoned machinery.

There is no nationwide registry of brownfield sites and the unknown nature of contamination can make identification and risk evaluation difficult. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are between 450,000 and 1 million brownfield sites in the United States. Brownfield sites that have received grants from the EPA for evaluation and/or cleanup can be searched using a map created by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Brownfield sites also present an investment opportunity. Brownfield properties can often be purchased at significant discounts due to the costs associated with evaluation and cleanup that will be required for redevelopment. In addition to grants from the EPA, many states and municipalities offer potential brownfield purchasers and developers financial incentives and liability relief, providing prospective investors additional security and opportunity.

If you own property considered a brownfield or own property near a brownfield, then evaluating, cleaning up, and redeveloping the brownfield might be a good option. The EPA as well as many states and municipalities have grant programs to help fund both the evaluation and the clean up of brownfield sites. Researchers in Minnesota looked at the values of over 150,000 commercial and residential properties in the vicinity of brownfields before and after cleanup and found that values completely rebounded to values of similar properties in the region after they were cleaned up and redeveloped. Another study found that residential property values increased between 5.1% and 12.8% after nearby brownfields were cleaned up.

AreaHub’s Knowledge Center is updated regularly and provides information drawing upon scientific studies and sources.

Sources#