Nearly 2 million in Illinois live near warehouses shrouded by truck pollution

With more than 2,400 warehouses across the state, surrounding neighborhoods face heightened pollution risks, a study shows, blaming online shopping and redlining’s legacy.

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Trucks like this one carry freight from shipping containers like these at an intermodal transportation center in Cicero.

Trucks carry freight from shipping containers like these at an intermodal transportation center in Cicero.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Illinois has been a freight hub since its beginnings, from waterways to rails to interstate highways to modern intermodal transportation centers to an unprecedented proliferation of warehouses to satisfy the demands of online shoppers.

Increasingly, warehouses crop up beside neighborhoods, exposing people living nearby to exhaust fumes from starting, stopping and idling trucks. And these diesel plumes carry a host of potential health threats to the public, including low birth rates, respiratory illnesses, even dementia.

These are the findings of a recent report from the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group that, using proximity-mapping technology, found that about 15 million people live within a half mile of a warehouse in 10 states it examined, including more than one million children under 5 years old.

“As corporations taught consumers to expect just-in-time products and home delivery, warehouse growth in the U.S. has exploded, and companies are building warehouses closer and closer to communities,” Aileen Nowlan, the study’s author, wrote. “Warehouses are now crowded beside homes, schools, parks and community centers in more parts of the country than ever before. Each warehouse generates hundreds, if not thousands, of truck trips each day.”

The problem is especially acute in Illinois as a freight-handling, crossroads transportation hub where the study showed nearly two million people, including 138,000 children under 5, live within a half mile of a warehouse.

“This is the place where all the railroads meet,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago. This is where transfers take place. There are a lot of containers coming from the East and West coasts to here and being reshuffled and resent, some on trains, but a lot regionally, 500 miles in every direction on trucks.”

The advent of fast, doorstep deliveries brings nitrous oxide and other pollutants closer to more people’s homes than ever.

“It’s a horrible combination,” Urbaszewski said.

Fine particulate matter from diesel exhaust can seep deep into the lungs and from there into the bloodstream and throughout the body. Studies have linked these pollutants to increases in asthma, respiratory hospitalizations, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart attacks, premature births and preventable deaths.

“There’s a whole laundry list of things,” Urbaszewski said, “and the more science moves forward, the more we find problems that we had not seen before. We also learn that a lot of the effects can be tracked to lower and lower concentrations of this stuff.”

Unhealthy pollution in Juliet, Elwood

The Environmental Defense Fund tallied 17,600 warehouses in the 10 states it examined, 2,401 in Illinois, with the homes of Black, Latino, Asian and American Indian people disproportionately affected.

Nowlan links this to “legacies of redlining and other discriminatory policies, new and existing distribution facilities, and the roads that serve them are more likely to be located in proximity to communities of color and areas of low wealth.”

The pattern of unequal warehouse distribution holds across all states, the study found, but in Illinois, the disproportionality is double what would be expected given the state’s population. The same was found to be true for Colorado and Massachusetts.

Tractor-trailer trucks on an interstate.

Warehouse Workers for Justice found that diesel-spewing truck traffic that warehouses bring to an area can be overwhelming. One of the study’s participants counted more than 1,000 trucks passing through a Joliet intersection in two hours.

Tim Boyle / Getty Images

A Chicago-area advocacy group, Warehouse Workers for Justice, calls it environmental racism. Last month, the group released a report showing air pollution at unhealthy levels at intermodal facilities in Joliet and Elwood. The group said it monitored air quality in four lower-income areas and found particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers — about 3% the diameter of a human hair. It said it found levels of this PM2.5 pollution exceeding standards set by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. According to WHO, PM2.5 pollution causes about seven million preventable deaths a year.

Warehouse Workers for Justice found that the diesel-spewing truck traffic that warehouses bring to an area can be overwhelming. One of the study’s participants counted more than 1,000 trucks passing through a Joliet intersection in two hours.

“In exchange for jobs, low-paying jobs at that, our land, air and water are polluted,” wrote Angela Ortiz, a leader of the group who formerly worked for Amazon.

The Environmental Defense Fund wants more monitoring using emerging technologies.

“Innovation in monitoring technologies can shine a light on warehouse emissions,” its report said. “Satellites are already observing warehouse emissions, and satellite imaging will soon offer more temporal resolution.”

It also recommended creating a free, regularly updated national database of current and proposed warehouses including “warehouse location, arterial roads, number of loading docks, expected truck trips, ownership and secured lenders. Leaders should also require disclosure of proposed warehouses, with projected truck traffic and emissions expected.”

Challenges to ‘electrifying everything’

Illinois is moving ahead in pushing for what would be a key solution: the evolution of America’s transportation systems toward zero-emission vehicles. In March, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved “beneficial electrification” plans from Commonwealth Edison and Ameren, the state’s two largest utilities, that direct the power generators toward such goals as environmental justice and vehicle grid integration.

Illinois also has enacted the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in 2021. Among the programs that law includes, it commits millions of dollars over the next decade to promote electric vehicles, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

“There are a lot of elements trying to come together,” said Larissa Koehler, a senior attorney with the EDF and director of vehicle electrification for the group. “But I think Illinois can do more.”

Illinois and other states could adopt clean-air standards set by the EPA, Koehler said, or the tougher standards set by California. Koehler said she’d like to see Illinois adopt California’s Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which sets manufacturers’ sales requirements for zero-emission vehicles, as well as the that state’s “Low-NOx “rule, which aims to curb nitrogen oxide emissions.

Koehler said much of the pushback she faces when lobbying for tougher standards comes from the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, which has raised concerns about electric-vehicle technology and the infrastructure needed to support it.

Asked about the group’s report, Jed Mandel, president of EMA, points to his organization’s cooperation in the transition to zero-emission vehicles.

“Truck and engine manufacturers have successfully worked with EPA … and are dedicated to a zero-emission future,” Mandel wrote in response to questions. “EMA member companies have invested billions of dollars to develop and manufacture zero-emission vehicles and are working to transition the country’s commercial trucking fleet to ZEVs.”

He said the group also is collaborating with communities in which truck traffic is highest, saying, “These communities, which have long struggled with higher levels of pollution, should be prioritized during infrastructure development.”

Koehler said she hopes the EDF report will focus attention on the aims of community advocacy groups that have been highlighting dangers from truck traffic for years.

“This has been a continuing problem,” she said. “And it’s going to get worse.”

Aydali Campa reports for Inside Climate News.

Al Lewis reports for Inside Climate News.

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