In the Crossroads State of Illinois, Nearly 2 Million People Live Near Warehouses Shrouded by Truck Pollution

With more than 2,400 warehouses in the state, many of its neighborhoods face heightened pollution risks, a recent study shows. There are twin culprits: online shopping and legacies of redlining.

Tractor-trailers move along an interstate frontage road Jan. 13, 2004 in Hampshire, Illinois. Credit: Tim Boyle/Getty Images
Tractor-trailers move along an interstate frontage road Jan. 13, 2004 in Hampshire, Illinois. Credit: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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CHICAGO—Illinois has been a freight hub since its earliest beginnings, from waterways to rails to interstate highways, to modern intermodal transportation centers, and more recently, to an unprecedented proliferation of warehouses to satisfy the demands of online shoppers. 

Increasingly, warehouses crop up beside neighborhoods, exposing residents to the exhaust fumes of starting, stopping and idling trucks. Diesel plumes impose a host of public health threats, including low birth rates, respiratory illnesses and even dementia.

These are the findings of an Environmental Defense Fund report released this week, “Making the Invisible Visible: Shining a Light on Warehouse Truck Pollution.” Using proximity mapping technology, the study from the nonprofit advocacy group shows that about 15 million people live within a half-mile of a warehouse in the 10 states it examined. This includes more than 1 million children under the age of five. 

“As corporations taught consumers to expect just-in-time products and home delivery, warehouse growth in the U.S. has exploded, and companies are building warehouses closer and closer to communities,” Aileen Nowlan, the study’s author, wrote. “Warehouses are now crowded beside homes, schools, parks and community centers in more parts of the country than ever before. Each warehouse generates hundreds, if not thousands, of truck trips each day.”


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The problem is likely everywhere that Amazon delivers, but it is especially acute in the freight-handling, crossroads state of Illinois. Here, nearly 2 million people, including 138,000 children under age 5, live within a half-mile of a warehouse, the study showed.

“This is the place where all the railroads meet,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago. This is where transfers take place. There are a lot of containers coming from the East and West coasts to here, and being reshuffled and resent, some on trains, but a lot regionally 500 miles in every direction on trucks.”

The added layer of just-in-time, doorstep deliveries brings nitrous oxide and other dangerous pollutants closer to more people’s homes than ever before. “It’s a horrible combination,” Urbaszewski said.

Fine particulate matter from diesel exhaust can seep deep into the lungs, then into the bloodstream, and can then circulate throughout the body. Studies have linked these pollutants to increases in asthma, respiratory hospitalizations, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart attacks, premature births and preventable deaths.

“There’s a whole laundry list of things,” Urbaszewski said, “and the more science moves forward, the more we find problems that we had not seen before. We also learn that a lot of the effects can be tracked to lower and lower concentrations of this stuff.”

Unhealthy Levels of Pollution in Juliet, Elwood 

The EDF study tallied 17,600 warehouses in the 10 states it examined, including 2,401 in Illinois.

Invariably, the homes of Black, Latino, Asian and American Indian people are disproportionately affected by these facilities, the EDF’s proximity mapping study showed.

Nowlan attributes this to “legacies of redlining and other discriminatory policies, new and existing distribution facilities and the roads that serve them are more likely to be located in proximity to communities of color and areas of low wealth.”

The pattern of unequal warehouse distribution holds across all states, the study found, but in Illinois, the disproportionality is double what would be expected given the state’s population. The same is true for Colorado and Massachusetts.

A Chicago-area advocacy group, Warehouse Workers for Justice  (WWJ), calls it environmental racism. Earlier this month, the group released a report showing air pollution at unhealthy levels at the Joliet, Ill., and Elwood, Ill., intermodal facilities. 

The group monitored air quality in four lower-income areas, finding particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers, or about 3 percent  the diameter of a human hair. The group said it found levels of this PM2.5 pollution exceeding standards set by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. PM2.5 pollution causes about 7 million preventable deaths per year, according to WHO.

The WWJ study showed how the diesel-spewing truck traffic that warehouses bring to an area can be overwhelming. One of the study’s participants counted more than 1,000 trucks passing through a Joliet intersection within a two-hour period.

“In exchange for jobs, low-paying jobs at that, our land, air, and water are polluted,” said Angela Ortiz, a former Amazon worker and current WWJ leader, in the study’s introduction.

Advocates are just beginning to tally the damage. The EFD report concludes that far more data is needed on warehouses and air pollution. 

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It recommends updated modeling of gathered data and more monitoring using emerging technologies. “Innovation in monitoring technologies can shine a light on warehouse emissions,” the report said. “Satellites are already observing warehouse emissions, and satellite imaging will soon offer more temporal resolution.”

The report also recommends building a comprehensive national database of current and proposed warehouses, which should be free and updated regularly. “Relevant disclosure should include warehouse location, arterial roads, number of loading docks, expected truck trips, ownership and secured lenders,” the report said. “Leaders should also require disclosure of proposed warehouses, with projected truck traffic and emissions expected.”

Industry, Political Challenges to ‘Electrifying Everything’ 

The key solution, of course, is the ongoing evolution of America’s transportation systems toward zero-emission vehicles. 

On this count, Illinois is making strides. In March, the Illinois Commerce Commission issued a final order approving beneficial electrification plans from Commonwealth Edison and Ameren, the state’s two largest utilities. These plans direct the power generators toward such goals as environmental justice and vehicle grid integration.

Illinois also boasts the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in 2021. It too aims for environmental justice and commits millions of dollars over the next decade to promote electric vehicles, among other programs. This includes medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

“There are a lot of elements trying to come together,” said Larissa Koehler, a senior attorney with the EDF and director of vehicle electrification for the group. “But I think Illinois can do more.”

States, for instance, can adopt clean-air standards set by the EPA, or they can adopt more ambitious standards set by California. Illinois hasn’t decided. Koehler said she’d like to see Illinois adopt California’s Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which sets manufacturers’ sales requirements for zero-emission vehicles, as well as the Golden State’s Low-NOx rule, which aims to curb nitrogen oxide emissions.

Koehler says much of the pushback she faces when lobbying for tougher standards comes from the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, or EMA. The group, she says, often raises concerns about electric-vehicle technology and the infrastructure needed to support it.

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Jed Mandel, president of EMA, touted the group’s ongoing cooperation in the transition to zero-emission vehicles when contacted for comment on the EDF report.

“Truck and engine manufacturers have successfully worked with EPA … and are dedicated to a zero-emission future,” he said in an emailed response. “EMA member companies have invested billions of dollars to develop and manufacture zero-emission vehicles and are working to transition the country’s commercial trucking fleet to ZEVs.”

He said the group is also collaborating with communities where truck traffic is the highest. 

“These communities, which have long struggled with higher levels of pollution, should be prioritized during infrastructure development.”

Industry recognition of the problem is a solid first step, but it’s bound to be a sooty road for years to come for the growing number of people living near warehouses.

Koehler said she hopes the EDF report will further the aims of community advocacy groups that have been highlighting the mounting dangers of truck traffic for years. “This has been a continuing problem,” she said, “and it’s going to get worse.”