Around the US, illegal dumping creates mental health challenges

MATTAPAN, Mass. — A bird calls through the canopy of autumn leaves as Amenyonah Bossman walks onto Livermore Street.

She’s lived just one block away for the past 20 years along with her three sons. Their neighborhood, one of the poorest in Boston, has few spaces to escape urban sprawl. This tree-lined road, nestled between the urban wilds of the Kennebec Marsh and the dense tract of the Pendergast Preventorium Park, is a gift for the community, Bossman tells me. Or at least it could be.

Bossman points out tires, bags of garbage and discarded construction materials. All of this, she said, has made her and her children feel ashamed of their neighborhood, preventing them from savoring the one strip of preserved green space in her corner of Boston. “I’ve spent the last 20 years telling the city to come down here and clean this stuff up,” Bossman told Environmental Health News (EHN), “and it just keeps happening.”

Examining a mess of plywood and scrap plastic on top of freshly fallen yellow leaves, Bossman shakes her head. “This wasn’t here last week,” she said. It’s a 15-minute drive to take this to the waste management plant — a trip she’s made many times. Bossman has spent the last 25 years working construction. She’s built homes, renovated businesses and erected entire buildings in Boston. “There’s so much garbage in the construction business, but this is way bigger than just us.”

Bossman isn’t alone in this struggle with waste being unlawfully discarded in her neighborhood: A four-year study in Science Advances estimated that 410,000 metric tons of solid plastic waste was illegally dumped in the U.S. in 2016 alone. All over the country, despite communities routinely dealing with illegal waste, when local governments and neighborhoods are able to reclaim vacant spaces, the mental health of the community improves. A big obstacle, however, is the lack of reliable data tracking how widespread the problem is.

“We haven’t been able to get the birdseye view because there aren’t any good general datasets on illegal dumping’s toll on communities,” says Bernadette Hohl, a senior research investigator with the Penn Injury Science Center and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Injury Prevention Program. This has required public health researchers to come up with new measurements to understand the problem.

Hohl partnered with the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center, community violence intervention project out of the University of Michigan funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to analyze communities hardest hit by illegal dumping and how they might prevent it. They found that vacant properties experiencing repeated illegal dumping in Flint, Michigan, were in the most vacant, economically vulnerable and physically deteriorated areas of the city. These areas had limited opportunities for community monitoring due to few residents and having visibility concerns, like more unlit street lights. Hohl and colleagues also found that sites with repeat illegal dumping were also in areas that had higher densities of violent and firearm-involved crime.

“Since we don’t yet understand the uniqueness of illegal dumping spaces, we’ve been looking at social disinvestment and physical disorder in communities with vacant spaces relative to violent crime, and we’re seeing these things are happening in the same places,” Hohl said.

Environmental injustice and illegal dumping

Hohl is not the only one noticing this. In a 2018 study, she co-investigated whether the greening of vacant urban land reduced self-reported poor mental health among nearby residents. Looking at 110 clusters of sites around Philadelphia containing some 541 individual vacant lots, Hohl and her colleagues found that people living around the lots where re-greening was implemented as opposed to simply cleaning up the garbage demonstrated significantly lower rates of self-reported poor mental health.

In 2021, a workshop at the National Academies in Washington D.C. addressed community health risks associated with exposure to waste. Dr. Eugenia South, who was lead researcher in the 2018 study and now the associate vice president of health justice at Penn Medicine, explained that “we really cannot talk about the environment without talking about structural racism.” A stark example of this, redlining —the discriminatory practice in which services are withheld from neighborhoods classified as “hazardous” to investment —has a long history of barring non-white communities from accessing key services that keep other areas safer and healthier. This is still a problem in hundreds of American cities today.

“We haven’t been able to get the birdseye view because there aren’t any good general datasets on illegal dumping’s toll on communities.” – Bernadette Hohl, Penn Injury Science Center

In 2010, researchers at the University of Michigan reviewed the ways someone’s neighborhood can be correlated with their overall health. Their research found a direct link between higher rates of depression and related symptoms and garbage in neglected public spaces in six out of seven studies. Researchers also found that neighborhood disinvestment — including the lack of proper waste management — was related to the rise in violent crime in every study they examined.

This is a daily reality in Mattapan. During our interview on Livermore Street, Bossman’s eldest son, Adam Suarez, 24, pulled up a video on his phone.

It had been recorded one month earlier on the other side of the dining room we sat in, showing their mailman being robbed at gunpoint. “For those of us that grew up here, it’s all part of the same problem now” he said. “We didn’t like going out much then because we were ashamed of how the street looked, but now these people know we don’t go out, and they take advantage of that.” His mom and several neighbors confirmed the mailman no longer works in the neighborhood.

Tackling illegal dumping and urban blight 

Laney Rupp, Bernadette Hohl’s co-investigator and center manager at the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center, said community interventions can and do work. In an ongoing pilot study examining dumping sites in Flint, Michigan; and Camden, New Jersey, researchers discovered that several sites in Camden that had murals and gardens constructed at the dumping ground saw the frequency of illegal dumping drop more than at sites that were merely cleaned up or given security cameras and fences. “When we spoke with members of those communities, some say they felt pride about the places they lived for the first time. That’s not a solution, but it’s a start,” said Rupp.

Unrelated to Rupp and Hohl’s work, Bloomberg Philanthropies funded a local arts project in Camden to turn dumping grounds into public art parks, which succeeded at preventing dumping, according to residents who spoke to The Courier Post Online.

One neighborhood in Detroit has spent years dealing with local contractors leaving garbage in vacant lots and in front of people’s homes. A critical mass of complaints about illegal dumping brought out law enforcement to raise the fines issued to offenders, and even inspired a local teenager to start a bulk waste removal business.

In Baltimore, the city has spent $14 million in funds provided by the American Rescue Plan Act to deploy cleanup crews around the city. Clean Corps, the city program born of that effort, has cleaned up 1,700 alleyways and more than 400 tons of trash, according to a statement by Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott last month.

As we walk to the end of Livermore Street, Amenyonah Bossman points to the far side of a stone wall. It’s densely wooded, and there seems to be no visible sign of garbage there. “This is all city-protected nesting grounds for local bird species, it’s where all the turkeys go when they get tired of the garbage.”