1 in 3 New Yorkers live near mega-warehouses. That can cause serious health issues.

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By Dan Sears

About 3 million New Yorkers live within a half-mile of large warehouses, which fill online orders but also create delivery truck traffic that dangerously pollute the air. And those residents are more likely to be Black, Hispanic or live in poverty, according to a new analysis of warehouse and census data.

The findings from the Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental advocacy group, show that pollution from e-commerce disproportionately affects people who are already at risk for severe asthma, heart disease, preterm birth and other health effects of bad air. Children, older adults, pregnant New Yorkers and those with chronic health conditions are all especially vulnerable to air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Because of the density in New York City, you’re seeing communities where every child lives within a half-mile of a warehouse,” said Aileen Nowlan, policy director for EDF and a coauthor on the report.

Large-scale warehouses are scattered across the city, but the largest concentrations are found in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, the report shows.

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Online shopping boomed during the pandemic’s early years, and facilities for companies like Amazon, FedEx and UPS, among others, have sprouted up across the five boroughs to meet the demand. Smaller e-commerce players, like hair care company Prose, have also taken up residence in the city.

New York state’s 2,000-plus large-scale distribution centers now cover more than 300 million square feet, according to the report — a 6% increase compared to the 2010s. Dozens or even hundreds of truck trips serve each warehouse daily. And along the way, diesel-burning trucks spew dangerous pollutants, including nitrogen oxide and PM2.5 — a term for easily inhaled fine particulate matter — especially when they start, idle or drive slowly, Nowlan said.

But the sizes, locations and pollution burdens of these warehouses are “shrouded in secrecy,” the report says. There’s no public database of mega-warehouses in New York, and because of city zoning rules, they can be sited in manufacturing districts without any consideration for their environmental effects, said Kevin Garcia, transportation planner for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

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“There’s no review process,” he said. “We have no idea how many of these trucks are coming from and to the facility.”

As part of their analysis, Nowlan and her colleagues at Environmental Defense Fund purchased a map of warehouses from CoStar, a commercial real estate data broker. They combined the location information with census data to estimate how many people live within a half-mile of fulfillment centers larger than 50,000 square feet.

They found that many of the largest warehouses were clustered in traditionally industrial neighborhoods, including Red Hook, Long Island City and the South Bronx. Those neighborhoods also have long legacies of environmental injustice. The South Bronx has New York City’s highest rates of child asthma, according to data from the city health department. Meanwhile, air pollution in Red Hook, which is home to multiple Amazon warehouses, regularly exceeds the EPA’s safety threshold, Gothamist previously reported.

In all three neighborhoods, more than a third of asthma cases can be attributed to nitrogen dioxide, a toxic component of vehicle exhaust, according to EDF data shared with Gothamist. EDF researchers used roadway maps, satellite images and government data on asthma and air quality to estimate the pollutant’s effects.

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Truck traffic could further compound these health disparities, Garcia said.

“If they continue to use polluting vehicles, what we’re going to see is increases in asthma and cardiovascular diseases” among communities of color, he added.

Amazon, FedEx and UPS did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the study’s findings.

This map shows the proportion of asthma cases in each census tract attributed to NO2, a toxic byproduct of fuel combustion.

This map is based on modeling data and may not include many pollution hotspots.

The warehouses’ immediate vicinities are disproportionately home to Black, Hispanic and low-income residents, according to the analysis. The proportion of residents living below the federal poverty rate was 20% higher near warehouses compared to the surrounding neighborhoods, while the proportion of Black residents was 17% higher.

The report also found that the disparities were even more pronounced outside New York City. In the Hudson Valley, warehouse neighbors were twice as likely to be Black, 66% more likely to be Hispanic and 54% more likely to be poor compared to people living more than a half-mile away.

“New York is already a very diverse place,” Nowlan said. “Even within that, the burden of trucks is still being felt by people who have historically been overburdened by air pollution.”

Garcia, Nowlan and others are calling for New York state to pass the Clean Deliveries Act, which would make warehouse operators accountable for air pollution from truck traffic to and from their facilities. Operators would have to pay fees for the emissions, or invest in cleaner alternatives, like electric vehicles. The bill would also require a permit for new warehouse construction or improvements and put guardrails on where warehouses could be built.

Meanwhile, at the city level, advocates are pushing for a change to the city’s zoning rules that would also require permits for warehouses and forbid them from being sited near schools, parks and other public resources.

Nowlan said that if the state bill is passed, it would ensure that the hardest-hit neighborhoods are prioritized for air quality improvements, including electric trucks and experimental zero-emissions delivery zones.

“That’s where the clean air should be first,” Nowlan said.

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