Chicago's Toxic Doughnut, USA


Altgeld Gardens was originally established as a federal housing project for World War II African American veterans on the South Side of Chicago. Labeled the 'toxic doughnut' Altgeld gardens had the highest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the nation. The community was surrounded by 50 landfills and 382 industrial facilities. It had 250 leaking underground storage tanks. Several toxicology studies conducted in Altgeld Gardens since the 1980s have revealed dangerous levels of mercury, lead, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and xylene. (Wenzel, L. (1998).

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Basic Data
NameChicago's Toxic Doughnut, USA
CountryUnited States of America
SiteAltgeld Gardens
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Waste Management
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Manufacturing activities
Specific CommoditiesIndustrial waste
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsIn 1998 an estimated 26,000 pounds of toxic pollutants were emitted annually contributing to extremely high rates of resperatory illness and asthma. A 1992 survey found that 51 percent pregnancies reported during the last year resulted in abnormalities.
Project Area (in hectares)77
Type of PopulationUrban
Potential Affected Population6,400 residents over the span of 68 years
Start Date1945
Company Names or State EnterprisesACME Steel from United States of America
Relevant government actorsChicago Housing Authority, Chicago Department of Public Health, Illinois Department of Public Health, EPA
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersPeople for Community Recovery, Greenpeace
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingLocal ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationBlockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Air pollution, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation
Health ImpactsVisible: Other environmental related diseases, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Other socio-economic impacts
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseEnvironmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
New legislation
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.Hazel Johnson and People for Community Recovery are widely recognized as founding leadership for the EJ movement. This case is also one of the early instances of successful community led research gather evidence of environmental racism. Succeded in convincing government to address several health issues including water contamination and asbestos.
Sources and Materials

Executive Order #12898 on Environmental Justice


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"Final tribute sought for environmental activist", Chicago Tribune
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Media Links

Video Interview with Hazel Johnson
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Other CommentsThis is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan.
Meta Information
ContributorKaty Hintzen, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update07/05/2015