How abandoned buildings could make you sick

By Jonathan Purtle

Tuesday’s four alarm blaze at an abandoned Fishtown warehouse, which sent one firefighter to the hospital, was the most recent reminder of Philadelphia’s struggle to deal with the crumbling, flammable, and hazardous vestiges of its industrial past. In April, the dilapidated and long-neglected Thomas W. Buck Hosiery factory went up in flames went up incaught ablaze, killing two firemen.

Recklessly abandoned: Philly's neglected buildings might affect our health in more ways than one. This unoccupied, tax-delinquent home is in the 2300 block of Gerritt Street. (Photo by Clem Murray)

It’s unclear exactly how many abandoned factories and warehouses are aging on city blocks, but an in-depth Inquirer article on the issue suggests that the number may be somewhere around 2,800.

Many of the health and safety hazards that go along with abandonment are undeniably real, and rather obvious: fire, falling debris, vermin, sharp rusty objects, dangerous machinery, mold, standing water, and toxic chemicals would be partial list.

But could the social and economic impacts of abandoned buildings also pose a threat to the public’s health?

Perhaps the most popularized notion of how urban blight has social impacts is the "broken windows" theory, proposed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982.  In short, the broken windows theory posits that disorganized physical environments encourage criminal behavior because the density of abandoned properties, graffiti, and excessive litter are signs of social disorder and indications that such behavior will be tolerated, or even go unnoticed. One broken window, if left unrepaired, begets more broken windows.

Data in fact suggests that “broken windows” might be bad for our health.

One study explored the association between a “broken windows index”—as measured by housing quality, graffiti, trash, and public school deterioration—and rates of gonorrhea in New Orleans neighborhoods. The researchers found that “broken windows” were more closely associated with variations in gonorrhea rates among neighborhoods than were average incomes, unemployment numbers, and level of education.

Another study, this one with data from 107 cities, found that the proportion of “boarded up houses” in a city was strongly correlated with premature death even after statistically controlling for differences in income, education, and employment. The authors speculated that abandoned buildings might deter retailers that carry healthy foods from doing business in these neighborhoods, leading to unhealthy diets for residents. And the crime that “broken windows” may promote, they said, could deter residents from exercising outdoors.

Correlation, of course, does not mean causation. But the persistence of these associations even after controlling for other major risk factors suggests that the presence of abandoned buildings might actually make it harder to stay healthy.

The economic costs of abandoned buildings have potential implications for the city’s health as well. A 2010 report concluded that there were roughly 40,000 vacant parcels (both buildings and empty lots) in Philadelphia, costing an estimated $3.6 billion in reduced property values, $5 million a year in lost property tax revenue ($2 million to the city and $3 million to the schools), and $20 million in direct   maintenance costs for services provided by the city.

What if this $20 million in added costs was instead spent on public health? As described in a previous post, one study found that, on average, a 10 percent increase in local public health department spending was associated with a 6.9 percent decrease in infant mortality. The 2009 budget for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health was just over $200 million.  If we extrapolate the study’s findings, this hypothetical 10 percent increase could translate into 17 infant lives saved per year. These days, of course, we are more likely to be talking about funding decreases—and lives lost.

The impact of the $3 milion in lost school district revenue is more obvious. Education is one of the strongest determinants of health status. While we pray that state budget cuts and the district’s fiscal woes won’t be detrimental to the educational, and health, trajectories of Philadelphia's school children, we can’t help but worry that it willl.

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