How the Effects of Food Swamps & Gas Stations Combine to Harm Public Health

Brandywine, MD residents were concerned about the proposed Brandywine Commercial Village shopping center that would place a gas station, convenience stores and two fast-food outlets close to their homes.  The residents were troubled by the proliferation of these establishments in Brandywine and the resulting adverse health effects.   

Gas stations release benzene and other compounds to the air which increase the likelihood of nausea, low-birth weight, cancer and other adverse health effects among those living, working or learning within 500- to a 1,000-feet.  Measures are not required for new gas stations that reliably resolve the health impact.

Fast food restaurants and convenience stores sell products dense in calories, high in sodium and sugar, which have played a large role in the epidemic of obesity, high-blood pressure, diabetes and other illnesses.  These restaurants-conveneince stores are collectively known as Food Swamps.

A CEDS analysis revealed that the Brandywine area had an unsually large concentration of gas stations and Food Swamp establishments.  This finding prompted the residents to form the Brandywine Healthy Neighborhoods Alliance.  CEDS assisted Alliance members in drafting the following testimony which they presented to the Prince George’s County Planning Board on July 30, 2020.

INTRODUCTION

Good morning members of the Prince George’s County Planning Board.

I’m testifying on behalf of the Brandywine Healthy Neighborhoods Alliance. You should have a copy of our written testimony before you, which includes the maps and other figures I’ll be referencing.

We are more than 600 area residents deeply concerned by the increasing number of Brandywine area establishments that can be characterized as Food Swamps. These establishments serve food dense in calories, high in sodium and sugar. Food Swamps have contributed to an epidemic of obesity and other adverse health effects.

Food Swamp establishments include fast-food, carry-out and other restaurants as well as convenience stores. Brandywine Commercial Village, as proposed, will increase the threat to the nutritional health of our families by adding three more Food Swamp establishments:

  • the 7-Eleven before you today along with the
  • Taco Bell and Tropical Smoothie Café coming before you on July 23rd.

The 7-Eleven gas station is also a health concern. There’s a large and growing body of scientific research showing that those living 500-feet or more from a gas station are more likely to develop adverse health effects ranging from nausea to low birth weight to cancer. These illnesses are caused by benzene and other compounds released to the air at gas pumps and from underground storage tank vents. These dangerous compounds then drift into nearby homes.

Our Alliance will not be asking you to deny Specific Design Plan approval. Instead, we wish to see if you can get the applicant to seek establishments that will begin to drain the Brandywine area Food Swamp by offering healthier food choices. We will also ask that you condition 7-Eleven approval on no gas pumps.

BRANDYWINE HIGH NUMBER OF FOOD SWAMPS

In your 2015 report Healthy Food for All Prince Georgians the Planning Board noted:

  • Prince George’s County has higher than average rates in diet-related chronic diseases in Maryland, and
  • More than two thirds of the adult population in the County is overweight or obese.

The obesity rate is on the rise; in the last 20 years it increased from 19 percent to 35 percent.

The 2020 Robert Wood Johnson Health Rankings showed that Prince George’s County was rated the 16th worst out of Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City.

In my written testimony you’ll find a map from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

The map shows that compared to the rest of rural, southern Prince George’s County, Brandywine has a far greater concentration of fast-food and sit-down restaurants.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the Brandywine area also has twice as many convenience stores per capita when compared to the countywide average. Convenience stores are another Food Swamp category.

The combined impact of an unusually large number of food swamp restaurants and food swamp convenience stores poses a uniquely severe threat to the health of Brandywine residents. The project before you today will make a bad situation worse.

Fortunately, the Brandywine area does benefit from two somewhat healthful supermarkets – Aldi and Safeway. So, while we are not in a Food Desert, the health of our families is under threat from the growing number of Food Swamp establishments.

FOOD SWAMP ISSUE ACKNOWLEDGED BUT NOT RESOLVED

The Brandywine Commercial Village Specific Design Plans would deepen the Food Swamp by allowing three more Food Swamp establishments to be added to our area: the 7-Eleven convenience store along with Taco Bell and Tropical Smoothie Café.
While the Staff Report noted this issue, it did not recommend any solutions.
The Staff Report included a 2019 Prince George’s Health Department memo which you’ll find at the end of our written comments. The first health impact assessment issue noted in the memo was, and I quote:

“There are more than five existing carry-out/convenience store food facilities and four grocery stores/markets within a ½ mile radius of this location. Research has found that people who live near an abundance of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores compared to grocery stores and fresh produce vendors, have a significantly higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes.”

We discussed our concerns with both Health Department and Development Review Division staff.

As reflected in their 2019 memo, Health Department officials were very concerned about the Brandywine Food Swamp issue.

Development Review staff forwarded the Health Department concern to the applicant. We asked Development Review staff what response was received from the applicant.

In a June 2nd message, Development Review staff (Adam Bossi) wrote and I quote:

“The Health Department’s comments on zoning applications are advisory, so no formal response was required by the Board nor provided by the applicant.”

The members of the Brandywine Healthy Neighborhoods Alliance are deeply troubled by this County policy.

PLANNING BOARD ACTION TO HALT FOOD SWAMP EXPANSION

We believe that the Planning Board has the authority to stem the public health threat posed by a proliferation of Food Swamp establishments in the Brandywine area.

Prince George’s County Zoning Ordinance Section 27.527, required referral of the Specific Design Plan before you to the Health Department for a health impact assessment.

The 2019 Health Department memo was the result of that assessment. The first health impact issue listed in the Health Department assessment was the abundance of Food Swamp establishments in the Brandywine area.

Section 27-528(b) requires that the Planning Board make a finding that the Specific Design Plan will safeguard public health. Because Brandywine Commercial Village will add three more food swamp establishments to the Brandywine area, I do not believe you can make this required finding.

REQUIRE APPLICANT TO SEEK HEALTHIER ESTABLISHMENTS

We are not asking you to deny Specific Design Plan approval; at least not at this time.

Instead, we ask you to continue this hearing and direct the applicant to use the intervening period to make a concerted effort to attract restaurants to Brandywine Commercial Village that will provide healthier foods.

Here are a few examples of a large number of retail chains offering more nutritional menu choices:

We can provide many other examples if you wish.

We also ask that you join with us in urging the County Executive and the County Council to follow the lead of Los Angeles and other U.S. jurisdictions in enacting a moratorium of new fast-food restaurants and other Food Swamp establishments in Brandywine and other afflicted areas of the County.

GAS STATION & ADVERSE HEALTH EFFECTS

Now I’ll explain why Alliance members are deeply troubled by the proposed 7-Eleven gas station.

Over the last decade a number of scientific studies have shown that the public health impact of gas station is far greater than previously thought. These impacts result from benzene and other harmful compounds released to the air from storage tank vents and when we fill our cars at the pump.

Our written comments included a letter from our consultant – CEDS. The CEDS letter presents the scientific studies documenting the public health effects which have prompted Prince George’s County and many other jurisdictions to adopt minimum public health safety zones for new gas stations.

In fact, one of these health safety zone laws appears in Section 27-358(a)(2), of the Prince George’s County Zoning regulations, which requires:

“The subject property shall be located at least three hundred (300) feet from any lot on which a school, outdoor playground, library, or hospital is located. [emphasis added]”

 

In my written comments you’ll find an aerial from the staff Power Point presented at the April 23, 2020 Planning Board hearing. In this aerial the subject property is outlined in red. Of course, the subject property contains the proposed 7-Eleven gas station. Note that an outdoor playground is located less than 200 feet from the subject property along with numerous homes. Therefore, the gas station would not meet the minimum 300-foot setback required from outdoor playgrounds.

As explained in the CEDS letter, the most recent scientific studies have shown that adverse health effects of gas station emissions threaten public health at a distance of 500-feet or more. Unfortunately, measures are not required for new gas stations that can reliably resolve the public health threat. If you wish we can arrange for you to speak with the scientist who is arguably the leading authority on this topic in the U.S. The scientist can confirm the inadequacy of current control measures.

The studies presented in the CEDS letter were part of the reason why, in 2015, Montgomery County increased their gas station public health safety zone from 300- to 500-feet and included homes among the list of protected land uses. The Montgomery County Ordinance enacting the safety zone increase is also attached to our written comments.

The aerial photo in my written comments shows that numerous Chadds Ford homes are located within 500 feet of the proposed gas station subject property. These Chadds Ford residents are deeply troubled by the health threat posed by the proposed 7-Eleven gas pumps.

The Brandywine area is not lacking for gas stations. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the Brandywine area has twice as many gas stations per capita when compared to the countywide average. And another gas station is proposed for the commercial area south of the 7-Eleven site.
It is for these many reasons that we urge the Planning Board to condition 7-Eleven Specific Design Plan approval on elimination of the proposed gas pumps.

CLOSING

Lastly, at the end of our written testimony, you’ll find numerous comments from Brandywine residents regarding their desire for the Planning Board to use your authority to guide economic growth in a direction that makes Brandywine an even better place to live.

As a veteran, I once swore to protect this nation against foreign and domestic enemies at all cost even if it meant my life. To some it may seem a bit much but not to a service member for it’s our sole duty. Now I’m asking the council and planning board to protect the residents of Brandywine and Prince George County. It’s time to end social disparity that plagues Prince George County by its lack of healthy food options and exposing residents to gas station pollution emissions. Prince George County almost doubles the size of Anne Arundel county (according to 2020 census, PG County 908,801 and Anne Arundel 571,592), yet healthy food stores and other chains continue to build around this county. Montgomery County protects its residents with a 500-foot public health safety zone for new gas stations. The residents of this county are worthy and deserve better. Change starts with you all our county officials and planning board. Your decision today is very important as it will convey your stance on health and concern for the residents of Brandywine and Prince George County.

Thank you.

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