standard The untherapeutic effects of brownfield land on human health


Brownfield or previously used land often has levels of contamination that make it unsuitable for development. It also has known risks for the physical health of people and the environment. In some cases it may not even be highly contaminated but because it requires remediation, little is done with it. But what effects does brownfield have on people’s health outside of people coming into close physical contact with environmental contaminants? Does the mere presence of brownfield lead to poorer health outcomes?

Many communities live near brownfield spaces (there are 62,000 acres of brownfield land in England alone), which may have serious consequences for their health according to a new study from Regeneration Brownfield Land Using Sustainable Technologies (ROBUST) project based at IHRR and in collaboration with the Wolfson Research Institute. Research led by Professor Clare Bambra, Dr Karen Johnson and Dr Steve Robertson finds that people who live close to brownfields have worse health compared to those that do not, or only live near small amounts of brownfield.

Professor Clare Bambra, lead author of the study 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.”

The study used data on brownfield land from the 2009 National Land Use Database, which encompasses around 72 per cent of previously developed land across England. Health data for the study was taken from the 2001 English Census, and data on premature death was used from the Office for National Statistics from 1998-2003. The brownfield and health data were mapped onto ward-level data to calculate the percentage of brownfield land within each ward.

After controlling for variables such as age, sex, economic background as well as other forms of environmental deprivation, wards with large areas of brownfield had a 15 per cent increase in ill health, including a 14 per cent increase in limiting long term illness, compared to wards with little to no brownfield.

Here are some of the maps produced by the study (compare brownfield map with ‘reported health’ and ‘limiting long-term illness’):


map2While access to green space is known to have positive effects on a person’s health, the role of brownfield in affecting people’s personal health and well-being has been largely overlooked. Further research is needed to better understand why brownfield has a detrimental effect on community health.

ROBUST is currently studying ways to ‘green’ brownfield land using recycled minerals. If brownfield is leading to poorer outcomes in people could regenerating the soil and using the land sustainably have a positive effect on people’s health? The relationship people have with land is clearly more complex than what is at the surface.

Dr Karen Johnson, one of the leaders of the ROBUST project said: “Brownfield has potential negative impacts on people’s sense of well-being 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 available for free online:

Bambra C, Robertson S, Kasim A, Smith J, Cairns-Nagi J M, Copeland A, Finlay N, Johnson K, 2014, ‘Healthy land? An examination of the area-level association between brownfield land and morbidity and mortality in England‘. Environment and Planning A 46(2) 433 – 454

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