Why do warehouses hurt air quality and neighborhood noise levels?

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  • May 11,23
Air and noise pollution from warehouses can reduce the value of homes, increase wear on roads and expose neighborhoods to excess amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are solutions to these problems, writes Emily Newton.
Why do warehouses hurt air quality and neighborhood noise levels?

Warehouse pollution problems have a serious impact on neighborhoods, including life-threatening health risks and damage to natural spaces. Air and noise pollution from warehouses can reduce the value of homes, increase wear on roads and expose neighborhoods to excess amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. What is the ripple effect of these issues and how can they be resolved? 

Common warehouse pollution problems
Demand for warehouse real estate has been on a steady rise over recent years, driven by a boom in e-commerce. Warehouse vacancy rates across the US hit a record low in 2021, a clear sign of the massive demand for these spaces. In an effort to meet that demand, logistics providers are building more warehouses all over the US, particularly in specific rural hubs like Eastern Pennsylvania. 

The issue with these developments stems from the many warehouse pollution problems they bring to neighborhoods. Warehouses don’t just take up real estate space. They require machinery, traffic and infrastructure that has a significant impact on the local community and environment. 

For example, warehouses are hubs for carbon emissions due to both the operational needs of the warehouse and the many trucks and delivery vans coming and going. Medium and heavy-duty trucks, like those traveling to and from warehouses, created over 417 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2021. These vehicles are also loud, creating noise pollution around the clock for people living near warehouses. 

Other common warehouse pollution problems include heavy wear to local roads, destruction of natural spaces and particulate air pollution. Warehouse construction and activity can also threaten local water supplies. 

For example, the Lehigh Valley and the Poconos in northeastern Pennsylvania are among the most popular areas for warehouse development and expansion today. Unfortunately, the construction of warehouses in this area is destroying wetlands, increasing flooding, polluting local waterways and threatening the local ecosystem. 

How warehouses negatively impact neighborhoods
All of these warehouse pollution problems directly impact nearby neighborhoods and public health. Air pollution from warehouse traffic isn’t just bad for the environment – it also poses medical risks for people living nearby. Continuous exposure to air pollution can cause several major illnesses, including lung cancer, respiratory infections, heart disease and even premature mortality. It can also cause or worsen asthma. The risk is particularly high for children and older adults, as well as those with preexisting medical conditions. 

Studies have found that communities primarily populated by people of color are disproportionately more likely to have large warehouses nearby. This includes over 1 million children under the age of five who are living less than a mile from the constant pollution and noise created by warehouses. People who live near warehouses also have less access to natural spaces since warehouses are often built over large areas of forests or fields. 

Of course, warehouses may bring more jobs to the communities they border. Over 1 million people work in warehousing in the U.S. today. However, those jobs are subject to significantly higher injury rates than other industries, despite detailed OSHA safety requirements. Warehouse jobs are often very physically demanding and may require employees to work unideal hours, such as night shifts. 

Additionally, the air and noise pollution from warehouses can lower property values. A homeowner with a nice detached house might suddenly find themselves unable to sell their home because a warehouse has been built in the previously empty grassland down the street. Not only are warehouses visually unappealing, but they also increase traffic congestion in neighborhoods, even at night. 

Solutions to warehouse pollution
While the impact of air and noise pollution from warehouses is significant, there are solutions that can help. Warehouse developers and local governments will need to work together to ensure that warehouses are not harmful to the environment and neighborhoods. Here are three probable solutions:

1. Switch to renewable energy: One way to address warehouse pollution problems is to switch warehouses to renewable, clean energy sources. Most warehouses today are still powered by fossil fuels, which create large amounts of GHG emissions. Using renewable energy instead can reduce warehouses’ carbon footprints and reduce strain on local power grids. 

Two of the main benefits of renewable energy are a reduction in air pollution and improvements in public health. Warehouses are also prime candidates for clean energy. For example, the large, flat roofs of warehouses could be covered in solar panels. Facilities located in flat expanses of land or near shorelines can also use wind power. Local farms and landfills may even be able to provide biomass for creating clean biofuels. 

As an added benefit, greater investment in clean energy can help create more new jobs for the neighborhoods around warehouses. 

2. Implement emissions restrictions: Local governments will need to step up if they want to get warehouse pollution problems under control. Implementing restrictions or fines for excessive emissions may be able to motivate warehouse developers and tenants to take steps to rein in their pollution. State and local governments across the country are already implementing legislation to reduce emissions. 

For example, in 2022, the US EPA approved a groundbreaking new mandate in California that will require all medium and heavy-duty trucks in the state to be zero-emissions by 2045. The mandate is designed to address fine particulate pollution and vehicle emissions in California, an estimated 50% of which are due to heavy-duty trucks. 

Restrictions like this force logistics companies to be more proactive about reducing their emissions. Switching to electric trucks, whether battery-powered or hydrogen-electric, reduces emissions and noise pollution, since electric vehicles don’t have engines. 

State and local governments could implement similar mandates concerning the emissions output of commercial spaces, as well. For example, a warehouse that produces a certain amount of emissions would need to either reduce those emissions or invest in technology like carbon capture and storage. 

3. Enact stronger local environmental protection laws: Addressing warehouse pollution problems is also about reducing the environmental impact of these facilities. They are often built on areas that were previously rich natural spaces, like wetlands, forests or agricultural land. Natural spaces are enriching for neighborhoods and are home to valuable wildlife and plant life. Stricter regulations on where warehouses can be built can help protect local ecosystems. 

For example, a warehouse developer might need to first get a consultation from a local environmental protection board. The environmental protection board would analyze the proposed development site to ensure that no at-risk species live in the area and no important waterways would be threatened. 

Furthermore, state and local governments could put restrictions on the number of warehouses that can be built within a certain number of square miles. 

Minimizing the impact of warehouse pollution
Warehouse pollution problems are a serious threat to neighborhoods and the environment. Air pollution increases the risk of life-threatening illnesses like respiratory infections and lung cancer. Increased traffic from trucks worsens air pollution and creates large amounts of noise pollution. 

All of these factors can have long-term effects like reducing property values and damaging local ecosystems. Innovative solutions are required to address these issues, including greater adoption of renewable energy and electric trucks. 

About the author:
Emily Newton is a tech and industrial journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. Subscribe to the Revolutionized newsletter for more content from Emily.

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