Flooding exacerbates pollution exposure in at-risk urban communities, study finds

By Amy McCaig, Rice University

A new study found that in Providence, R.I., and other cities, rising floodwaters are exposing more people to industrial pollution, and the issue is disproportionately affecting lower-income communities of color.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] – Increased flooding in the United States is exposing more people to industrial pollution, especially in urban areas that are home to marginalized communities, according to a new study from researchers at Brown, Rice and New York universities.

The study – which combined historical data on former hazardous manufacturing facilities with informed predictions on future flood risk in six different American cities, including Providence, R.I., Houston, New Orleans and Minneapolis – found that more than 6,000 former industrial sites that are likely still sources of significant ground pollution are at elevated flood risk over the next 30 years. What’s more, the researchers found, those sites are disproportionately located in lower-income communities of color.

The findings were published in Environmental Research Letters on Tuesday, June 28.

Lead author Thomas Marlow, who received a Ph.D. from Brown in 2020 and is now a postdoctoral researcher at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates, said industrial activity has not only contributed to climate change but has also left behind enormous amounts of land-based contamination that will continue to put people at risk when floodwaters rise.

“We wanted to investigate where those dynamics will affect different communities in the years ahead,” Marlow said.

The researchers found that the sites of highest concern exist in clusters, creating zones of increasing risk in areas near former industrial sites where more than 560,000 Americans currently live. Those areas tend to be home to low-income families and people of color, said Jim Elliott, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of sociology at Rice.

Scott Frickel, a professor of sociology at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and a study co-author, said the findings show an urgent need for new cleanup strategies in urban areas.

“Specifically, we need to rethink site-based strategies for cleaning up urban lands polluted by past industrial activities,” Frickel said. “This work must engage and include residents of historically marginalized communities in planning efforts as government agencies at all levels work to make their cities more resilient and environmentally just in the age of climate change.”

Frickel said the researchers plan to build on their work by assisting local for-profit and nonprofit organizations address the challenges of urban flooding.

“The good news,” Elliott said, “is that if we act now, we can not only tackle the problem but also help build more just and resilient cities.”

The research was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program (P42ES013660 and 3P42ES013660-14S1) and the National Science Foundation (0849823 and 0849826).

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