Brownfields and Public Health

Information for local governments, developers, lenders and citizens

What is the relationship between brownfields and public health?

Brownfields are typically commercial or industrial properties that are abandoned, underused or not considered for development because of possible contamination. Examples of brownfields include former manufacturing facilities, gas stations, dumps, and small businesses such as printers or dry cleaners. With any brownfield, the possibility of contamination should be carefully evaluated in order to protect people from exposure to hazardous substances.

The Minnesota Department of Health is one of several state agencies that may play a role in restoring brownfields to productive use. Redeveloping brownfields is good public health practice. It prevents exposure to hazardous substances, eliminates physical hazards and improves the overall quality of life for the surrounding community.

Are all brownfield sites contaminated?

abandoned building on a brownfield siteNo, not all brownfields are contaminated with hazardous substances. Some sites may simply be an eyesore due to rundown buildings or accumulated trash. However, many sites are contaminated to some degree as a result of past uses.

For example, a dry cleaning business may have disposed of chemical solvents down the drain, contaminating the groundwater. Or, older buildings may have been constructed with asbestos containing materials like pipe insulation which is a serious health hazard when disturbed during demolition or renovation.

An abandoned metalworking shop may have left behind processing wastes or metal degreasing solvents. Underground storage tanks at old gas stations may have leaked petroleum products into the soil and groundwater.

How could contamination affect people's health?

For contamination to affect people's health, two conditions must occur: 1.) the level of contamination is high enough to be hazardous to human health, and 2.) there is a way that people might come into contact (be "exposed") to the contamination. People might be exposed by walking on the site, by wind carrying contamination off of the site, or by drinking groundwater affected by the site. This can be before, during, or after redevelopment.

If these two conditions are not occurring, there is little chance that people's health could be affected. If these two conditions do exist, there still often needs to be further investigation to determine the size of the problem and best determine how to deal with it.

How does MDH become involved?

The Site Assessment and Consultation (SAC) Unit at MDH can be requested to evaluate brownfields by citizens, local governments, other state agencies or the US Environmental Protection Agency. The SAC Unit works with stakeholders to ensure that investigations and cleanups consider and address public health concerns.

The SAC Unit can provide recommendations about the redevelopment of contaminated land that includes residential buildings, parks, childcare centers, and schools to ensure that sensitive populations are protected. When brownfields are in or near residential communities and the contamination is above health-based criteria, the SAC Unit can provide technical assistance. The SAC Unit is often involved when there are unusual contaminants or routes of exposure. The SAC Unit also provides communities and health care professionals with education about contaminants and exposures.

In addition to the SAC Unit, MDH involvement with brownfields includes evaluating chemical toxicity and developing safe exposure levels for the general public, establishing Special Well Construction Advisories in areas with known groundwater contamination, and implementing prevention activities targeted at asbestos, mold, lead and radiation.

Printable information sheet: Brownfields and Public Health (PDF: 153KB/2 pages)

If I have health concerns related to a brownfield site, who should I contact?

Please see our Contact Us page.

For general information on brownfields in Minnesota, contact the Voluntary Investigation and Cleanup Program (VIC) at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency at (651) 296-7291 or see the MPCA brownfield web page.


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Updated Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 04:01PM