Brownfield sites are bad for health, say North experts

A Durham University study looks at the health impact of brownfield sites. Tony Henderson talks to researchers whose work could have far reaching impacts

Senior Lecturer Karen Johnson and Senior Researcher Steve Robertson
Senior Lecturer Karen Johnson and Senior Researcher Steve Robertson

Green is good and grot is grim - especially when it applies to your neighbourhood: that seems to be a commonsense conclusion.

But now a Durham University study has confirmed that people living near brownfield sites - land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes but now vacant - are significantly more likely to suffer from poor health than those living in areas with little or no brownfield land.

The findings suggest that the regeneration of brownfield land should be considered as a policy priority for councils and Government.

The research – the first to examine the link between brownfield land and health in England – shows that brownfield sites could be a potentially important and previously overlooked environmental influence on health.

Brownfield land often has real or perceived contamination problems and which requires intervention to bring it back into productive use. The Homes and Communities Agency estimates that there is around 62,000 hectares of brownfield land in England alone.

So it would appear to be significant that the Durham University researchers found that local communities with large amounts of brownfield land had poorer health outcomes, including limiting long term illness.

Electoral wards with large areas of brownfield generally had worse health compared to those with no brownfield or only small amounts.

While the hazardous effects of brownfield land with contaminants are well known, researchers suggest that, regardless of contamination, brownfield could have wider negative impacts on the general health of communities.

They say further research is needed to find out which health effects play the greatest role.

A first response to the study is likely to be that more brownfield sites will be located in deprived areas, where health will be poorer anyway.

But Dr Steve Robertson, who was involved in the study, said that even after factors such as unemployment, smoking, obesity, socio-economic class and deprivation statistics were taken into account, the health impact of brownfield sites still emerged.

After factoring in such variables, it was found that wards with large areas of brownfield still had a 15% increase in ill health, including a 14% increase in limiting long term illness, compared to wards with little to no brownfield.

Professor Clare Bambra, lead author of the study from Durham’s Department of Geography, said: “Our study shows that local authorities and central Government need to prioritise the remediation and regeneration of brownfield land to protect the health of communities.”

It is not yet known whether physical contamination, or the mental and emotional effect on how people feel living near “grot spots”, is the main influence behind the health issue.

Co-author of the study Dr Karen Johnson, from Durham University’s School of Engineering and Computing Sciences and Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience said: “Brownfield has potential negative impacts on people’s sense of wellbeing and this could be psychological or toxicological, or both.

“United States President Roosevelt said that ‘a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself’ and I agree. Land is important to us and it comes as no surprise that brownfield has a negative effect on people’s health.”

The study is part of a wider Durham University project called ROBUST (Regeneration of Brownfield Using Sustainable Technologies), which sees the university working with Durham County Council and the community at Easington Colliery to restore waste land in the village.

The project is using compost and minerals left over from waste water treatment to improve soil so that the site can be greened.

Such waste land is often low value so it is unlikely to be redeveloped and regeneration funding in increasingly hard to find. So low-cost, community-led solutions could be the way forward. The newly-greened Easington Colliery site will be improved with fencing and seating, and is set to be “unveiled” in May.

The study says that it is “increasingly understood” that the physical environment remains an important factor in health inequalities.

“Existing research has largely focused on the health effects of access to green space, the proximity of waste facilities, or air pollution. The role of brownfield land has been largely overlooked,” it says.

The Environment Agency estimates that of land in England with a history of industrial use, around 22% are, or are likely to be, contaminated.

But the study says that how residents feel about their area is also associated with health outcomes.

Places can acquire a “spoiled identity” and become stigmatised and discredited as a result of environment factors such as air pollution or “dirt”.

Residents of stigmatised places can also be discredited by association and that such environmental place-based stigma can result in stress and associated ill health, including feelings of shame.

Past research has shown that green settings reduce stress levels and produce positive emotions.

It is argued that our response to nature today is influenced by inherited human characteristics by which people have preferences for natural settings which in the past have offered resources for life and protection.

Just as green space is believed to have a therapeutic effect on people, brownfield land could perhaps be acting on health as a form of “untherapeutic” landscape.

Green spaces may also encourage exercise, such as walking or jogging, while some brownfield land in contrast may limit the opportunity for exercise as such areas may not only be visually offputting but they may also contribute to a sense of physical insecurity and concerns about crime and safety.

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