New study shows people of color in the US are more likely to be harmed by pesticides due to weak regulations and lax enforcement
WASHINGTON—A peer-reviewed study published today in the Academic Journal BMC Public Health finds that Black, Indigenous, and people of color, as well as low-income communities, bear a disproportionate burden of pesticide harm in the United States.
The study, Pesticides and Environmental Injustice in the United States: Root Causes, Current Regulatory Strengthening, and the Way Forward, is the first-ever comprehensive assessment of US disparities in pesticide protection and oversight. He found ample evidence of greater exposure and harm in communities of color and low-income communities in residential and work environments.
Led by researchers from historically black colleges and universities and agricultural workers, racial justice and conservation groups, the study finds that disparities in exposure and harm to environmental justice communities exist in rural and urban settings. and occur throughout the life cycle of pesticides, from manufacture to use.
“Like many other pollutants, pesticides are a major environmental justice issue,” said Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University. “The cost of these chemicals is not just paid for at checkout, it is also paid for by communities that have been marginalized for centuries. The Biden administration can and must act aggressively to correct this long ignored injustice.
- Disproportionate exposure: Biomarkers for 12 harmful pesticides tracked over the past 20 years have been found in the blood and urine of black or Mexican Americans at average levels of up to five times higher than in whites.
- Weak agricultural worker protections: An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 mostly Latina farm workers fall ill each year due to pesticide exposure, yet they continue to be excluded from pesticide protections provided to the general public.
- Unequal risks: In California, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, people of color make up about 38% of the population, but 63% of the population lives near the 31 manufacturing plants of pesticides in violation of environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
- Toxic Housing: 80% of public housing in New York State regularly apply pesticides. And 30% of African American and Dominican pregnant women in New York had at least eight pesticides detected in a home air monitoring study.
Moreover, according to the study, current laws, regulations and regulatory practices perpetuate these inequalities. A summary of the results can be found here.
“This report just highlights what we’ve known all along,” said Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator at the Farmworker Association of Florida. “The people who do some of our country’s most important jobs – harvesting the food that feeds the nation – bear a disproportionate burden of toxic pesticide exposure that endangers their health and lives and those of their families. This report spells it out unequivocally, so we ask our political leaders committed to environmental justice, “What are you going to do about it?”
“Our regulatory systems exclude agricultural workers from basic protections,” said Amy K. Liebman, director of environmental and occupational health for the Migrant Clinicians Network. “As a result, farm workers and their families are routinely overexposed to pesticides that have acute and chronic health impacts and negatively affect the health of farming communities. Strong and enforced regulations are needed now.
“As a black-led organization representing a state where 45.8% of our renter population is considered low-income or cost-burdened, and where agriculture employs 17% of our total workforce , the disproportionate impact of pesticides on Black and Brown communities and workers is of immense concern not only to our organization, but also to those we serve,” said Jovita Lee, Director of Policy for Advance Carolina. “It is our duty to implore our federal leaders to act immediately by putting in place protections that will ease this burden and provide a safer environment for our people.”
“The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides seeks to understand and challenge patterns of oppression and racism as part of our work to protect human and environmental health from the impacts of pesticide use and we expect that that current U.S. pesticide laws, policies, and regulatory practices do the same,” said Dominica Navarro Martinez, co-director of the Northwest Center for Alternatives.
“For too long, communities of color have served as veritable dumping grounds for many of our country’s most dangerous toxic chemicals, including pesticides,” said Fatemeh Shafiei, director of environmental studies and associate professor of political science at the Spelman College. “That has to change. It’s time for state and federal regulators across the United States to launch aggressive efforts to end this deeply troubling form of environmental racism.
“Pesticides are more likely to harm people of color because of entrenched policies and laws that oppose them,” said Nathan Donley, director of environmental health sciences at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This research identifies concrete steps the Biden administration can take to begin to right those wrongs.”
Today’s study was authored by researchers from Texas Southern University, Spelman College, Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, Advance Carolina, Migrant Clinicians Network, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides and the Center for Biological Diversity.