Warehouses are afflicting air and noise pollution on millions of Americans

A large warehouse shares a fence line with a small house.
The wall of a giant warehouse comes right up to a homeowner’s property on April 26th, 2021, in San Bernardino, California. | Photo by Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

With millions of Americans now living in close proximity to a warehouse, it’s time to start treating these drab, feature-less buildings like pollution hotspots, says a recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund. Warehouses are quickly popping up all over the US, bringing truck traffic and tailpipe emissions with them. And yet there is no federal database to see where current or proposed warehouses are located, unlike other major sources of pollution like oil and gas facilities.

In the absence of federal data, the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) completed its own analysis of warehouses in the 10 states where they’ve gained tremendous ground recently. Over the past decade, warehouses have surpassed office spaces to become the most common type of commercial building in the US.

At least 15 million people, including more than a million children under the age of five, live within a half-mile of a warehouse, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found. And a warehouse isn’t your average neighbor. Warehouses often operate around the clock, bringing in a steady stream of truck traffic and delivery vans. Communities of color were more likely to see one crop up in their backyard, according to the report, which suggests they’re disproportionately dealing with the public health risks.

“It’s important to understand who is bearing the brunt of health burdens associated with living close to heavy truck traffic in order to develop and implement smart, targeted policies that protect public health and reduce emissions,” Aileen Nowlan, a US policy director at EDF, says in a press release.

Warehouse space has become a hot commodity thanks to the growth of e-commerce. These hulking facilities creep closer to residential neighborhoods as companies try to move inventory quickly and entice customers with promises of quick shipping. Every $1 billion in online sales drums up demand for 1.25 million square feet of warehouse space, according to commercial real estate firm CBRE.

The consequences of that aren’t spread out evenly. In Illinois, Massachusetts, and Colorado, the concentration of Black and Latino residents living next to warehouses is almost twice as high as the state average, EDF found in its report. Across the 10 states included in the study, Black, Latino, Asian, and American Indian residents were more likely to live within a half mile of a warehouse than white residents.

To conduct its study, EDF used a GIS application called Proximity Mapping, a tool academic researchers have previously used to map communities living near oil and gas wells. It relies on the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to assess the demographics of census tracts surrounding certain facilities.

An investigation by Consumer Reports in 2021 similarly found that Amazon tends to site its warehouses closest to communities of color. That investigation discovered that Amazon warehouses in the US are often in places that have a higher proportion of residents of color than 70 percent of neighborhoods in the rest of the metro area.

The EDF report argues that it needs to be easier for Americans to see where companies plan to build warehouses — similar to mandates for oil and gas infrastructure. There also needs to be more air quality monitoring around existing warehouses, EDF says. They’ve escaped scrutiny in the past because the pollution that shrouds them comes from all the traffic surrounding them and not the building itself.

And yet there’s significantly more traffic, air pollution, and noise in census tracts with warehouses compared to those without them, another study based in California found last year. Pollution from diesel trucks in particular has been tied to health risks from low birthweight to childhood asthma and heart disease in adults.

The EPA proposed new rules in March and April to slash truck emissions that pollute the air and cause climate change. The proposed standards for greenhouse gas emissions could push nearly half of new delivery and freight vehicles sold by 2032 to be electric.

Electric vehicles could certainly clean up tailpipe emissions polluting the air near warehouses. But they don’t get rid of all the particulate pollution created by the wear and tear of large vehicles on roadways. And there’s still the noise and traffic to contend with if you live next door. So it’s still worth keeping in mind where warehouses wind up and what that means for their neighbors.

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