In the city of Chicago, historic redlining, disinvestment and the effects of past and current zoning laws, have disproportionately exposed South and West Side residents to pollution. On the West Side, Austin residents live close to sources of pollution that may increase their risk of chronic disease. In 2020, the city’s department of public health found that air pollution disproportionately affects Austin, among other south and west side communities. Due to its proximity to major highways and industrial corridors, there are higher levels of pollutants like particulate matter and ozone in the air. 

As a result, Austin residents are at higher risk of health issues like lung irritation, respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, asthma, cancer, and early death. The city estimates 5% of premature deaths in Chicago each year can be attributed to exposure to particulate matter. 

“The Austin area is an overburdened community,” said Michael Cailas, associate professor of environmental and occupation health sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago. 

Cailas is part of a group of researchers from the university who study disparities in environmental pollution in Chicago. As part of the research titled “Proximity to environmental health hazards in Chicago,” in 2022 they published an interactive map where residents can easily visualize hazardous sources close to a specific location. Considering that children are a vulnerable population, Chicago Public Schools are identified on the map so residents can see what hazardous sources are near a school and how close they are. 

For example, in a mile radius of Spencer Technology Academy, located at 214 N. Lavergne Avenue, there are five industrial facilities that release toxic chemicals, including lead and lead compounds, and four brownfields. Lead is known to be a carcinogen, however more research is required to determine if the quantity released is sufficient to pose a health threat to students near facilities that release it. 

Parks like LaFollette Park, 1333 N. Laramie Ave., are in proximity to industrial facilities that release regulated chemicals. | Francia Garcia Hernandez

Yet, it is known that industrial facilities often increase heavy traffic in the area, worsening air quality due to vehicle emissions. According to the city of Chicago’s 2020 report, diesel particulate matter is more prevalent in areas with significant traffic and industry. Railyards also increase the presence of particulate matter in the air. 

The Environmental Protection Agency requires certain industrial facilities that generate toxic chemicals to report how much of each chemical they manage or release to the air, water or land. According to the federal environmental agency, toxic chemicals are those that cause cancer, chronic health effects, severe immediate health effects and adverse damage to the environment. The information is compiled in the Toxic Release Inventory, which was used to include industrial facilities that release toxic chemicals in the interactive map. 

Brownfields are commercial, industrial or abandoned properties with actual or perceived contamination that have potential to be redeveloped. However, the potential presence of one or several contaminants on these properties usually means brownfields remain abandoned as cleanup tends to be expensive and complex.

The recently inaugurated North Austin Community Center is located on the site of the former Glidden paint factory, a brownfield. The presence of xylene and other toxic substances almost doubled the cleanup costs and delayed the construction process of the new education and sports facility, said Andraya Yousfi. Yousfi is the manager of partnerships and development at By The Hand Club, one of the organizations which purchased and redeveloped the site that had been abandoned for 40 years. The benefits to the community outweigh the lengthy and costly cleanup, she said. In years past, residents and environmental justice organizers in areas like Little Village and McKinley Park have opposed known polluting companies like metal shredders and asphalt mixing plants from operating in their neighborhoods for environmental and health concerns. 

Austin residents can utilize data to urge local government and policymakers to evaluate environmental and health data when making development decisions. Last year, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development ruled the city violated residents’ civil rights by deliberately placing heavy industry facilities in industrial corridors largely concentrated in the city’s predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. The ruling came after a two-year long investigation started after three environmental groups on the Southeast side of Chicago filed a complaint to prevent a metal-scrapping facility from opening in the area.