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Daily News Blog

14
Jan

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Words, “All life is interrelated,” and His Legacy Are Honored on MLK Day, Monday, Jan. 17

(Beyond Pesticides, January 14, 2022) On the annual celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.— MLK Day, Monday, January 17 — Beyond Pesticides honors his legacy by calling out ongoing environmental inequities, and calling on all of us to advance environmental justice. In his 1967 Christmas sermon, Dr. King famously noted, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” There may be no better description of what is at stake in environmental justice work — righting environmental wrongs that have disproportionate impacts on some groups of people. In its attention to the multitude of ways in which BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) populations face disproportionate risks and impacts, Beyond Pesticides works to ensure that all people are afforded circumstances that support their safety, health, and well-being.

Rather than excavate the very long historical record of environmental injustice in the U.S., today’s Daily News Blog recalls several examples from the past year. It is impossible to begin that chronicle without first acknowledging that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has surfaced a multitude of inequities that layer on and exacerbate others. Early on, it became abundantly apparent that some people — low-income, elderly, and those in communities of color —are suffering disproportionate rates of infection, illness, and death from the virus that causes Covid. Explanations for such impacts in communities of color include the facts that BIPOC folks represent an outsized proportion of essential workers, and of those with medical comorbidities that raise risk; they may also have less-ready access to, and/or lower-quality of, healthcare.

In the summer of 2020, Beyond Pesticides reported on high rates of Covid infection and death among farmworkers and landscapers, and exposed the increased pandemic risks to such populations because of pesticide exposure. (Latinx people are particularly over-represented among such workers.) As it wrote then, “Evidence is mounting that threats to the immune and respiratory systems posed by pesticides are likely to make those exposed more susceptible to the coronavirus. . . . Alongside other hardships such preexisting health problems, family obligations, cramped housing and transportation, threat of deportation, and communication difficulties, the risks of these essential workers contracting and dying from Covid-19 are compounded exponentially.”

In its 2020–2021 Annual Report, Beyond Pesticides noted important learnings from the Covid-19 experience: “different population groups have disproportionate vulnerabilities, from children to older people; essential workers (from hospital personnel, to grocery store workers, to farmworkers) suffer elevated risk factors due to exposure patterns, creating disproportionate rates of disease; those with preexisting conditions or comorbidities face higher risks; and a lack of complete scientific knowledge requires a precautionary approach or standard.”

On a brighter and related note, the Apopka, Florida Farmworker Association (FFA) is advocating vigorously for a ban on all organophosphate pesticides, which cause serious neurological damage, especially in children. Earthjustice recently joined FFA and other community health and farmworker groups in support of FFA’s work, filing a petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides. These compounds, which are prevalent in the food supply and water resources, endanger farmworkers and their families; see this Earthjustice database, which is chock-full of information on the use of organophosphates in the U.S., for a deep look at their use, the most-contaminated foods, and impacts on workers, bystanders, and consumers.

—Early in 2021, Beyond Pesticides covered a study that found a link between elevated rates of breast cancer and exposure to chemical pesticides among African American women, who are 40 percent morelikely to die from this cancer than are non-Black women. The study also found that aggressive cancer subtypes (such as triple-negative breast cancer) have stem-cell-like properties that allow pesticides to dysregulate hormonal pathways. Increased exposures to chemicals, including pesticides, in low-income, often fenceline, communities of color create unequal risks for residents. The researchers also determined that biomarker concentrations in non-Hispanic Black Women are higher for a variety of chemicals, including a fungicide and some pesticide metabolites, as well as heavy metals and endocrine disruptors.

In covering this study, Beyond Pesticides wrote that, “The connection between cancer and pesticides is of specific concern to communities of color, as etiological studies often attribute cancer to genetics or environmental contamination without considering the disproportionate risk of exposure to contaminants. Many people of color communities or members of low-socioeconomic backgrounds experience unequal amounts of chemical exposure from various sources. Placement of toxic waste plants, garbage dumps, industrial factories, [chemical intensive] farms, and other hazardous pollution sources lowers the quality of life for minority populations. . . . Women of color are especially vulnerable to chemical exposure.”

—In the summer of 2021, the long scandal of EPA’s ongoing allowance of the use of chlorpyrifos (another organophosphate) on food crops was largely resolved when the agency released its final rule on chlorpyrifos by revoking all “tolerances” for the compound, effectively banning the continued use and presence of the chemical in food. But for more than five decades prior to this revocation, the toxic organophosphate insecticide had disproportionately harmed low-income African American and Latinx farmworkers (and their families) who have harvested much of the domestic — and contaminated — crops of grapes, citrus, and sugar beets, among others. Risks of exposure to chlorpyrifos include neurological, reproductive, endocrine, and liver and kidney, damage.

Beyond Pesticides reported, in December 2021, an acknowledgement, by the Monsanto company (now owned by Bayer), of wrongdoing, in which it admitted guilt in more than 30 environmental crimes in Hawai’i (on Maui, Oahu, and Moloka’i) — for the second time in four years. (In 2019, Monsanto endangered public health and the environment by knowingly storing and applying the highly hazardous and banned insecticide methyl parathionon Maui, and only narrowly avoided prosecution for it.) The company was fined a total of $22 million for both the current adjudication and that in 2019.

In the recent instance, the company acknowledged it had illegally instructed workers to store and transport the banned Penncap-M, and to use it on research crops in 2014. Monsanto then told workers to enter the contaminated fields after seven days — far before the 31-day period required. In 2020, Monsanto told workers to use Forfeit 280 (a post-emergence herbicide) on cornfields, and then told them to enter those fields 30 times during a six-day “restricted entry” period. Both actions exposed multiple workers to these compounds.

Monsanto has conducted trials for its companion genetically engineered seeds and herbicides in Hawai’i for many years now. Roughly 75% of Hawaii’s population is non-white, so both direct impacts on agricultural workers, and indirect impacts on those living proximate to Monsanto fields, land heavily on indigenous people and other communities of color.

—Beyond Pesticides called attention last December to another instance of environmental injustice — one of thousands in the U.S. — related to toxic chemical use in or near communities of color. In this instance, the death of a young boy from leukemia led to the identification of a Houston-area childhood cancer cluster — with incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia nearly five times higher than what would be expected. The guardian of the boy and thousands of other area residents — many of whom are Black — are suing Union Pacific Railroad Company for contaminating their properties with highly hazardous creosote wood preservatives.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, after touring the area as part of his Journey to Justice tour, pledged federal assistance with the cleanup of these toxic and persistent chemicals. Yet, EPA is currently in the process of reauthorizing creosote use for railroad ties and utility poles for 15 more years — even while it purportedly understands that production and use of these compounds contaminate communities and poison people. Beyond Pesticides wrote: “Some environmental advocates are suggesting that Administrator Regan take a tour of EPA’s pesticide registration program and stop the unnecessary poisoning that disproportionately affects people of color and those with vulnerabilities or pre-existing medical conditions that increase their vulnerability to toxic chemical exposure. While advocates say that cleaning up EPA’s mess in communities is critical, they insist that it is just as important to prevent future harm by keeping hazardous chemicals out of the market.”

—The impacts of the climate emergency affect everyone, but as has been repeatedly identified, they are hitting some regions and their inhabitants sooner and harder. According to Los Angeles Times coverage of a University of California Merced report, the annualized average temperature in the San Joaquin Valley — already hugely stressed by drought in recent years — could increase by four to five degrees over the coming three decades. The region is an important agricultural heartland that has long supported a huge variety of row crops, as well as grapes, almonds, pistachios, fruit trees, and dairy production. This report presents a very grim picture for the residents of the valley, largely low-income, Latinx agricultural workers who lack sufficient resources to adapt successfully to such changes.

The predicted temperature increases, according to the report, will likely result in increasing health hazards for residents (especially from extreme heat stress and chronic diseases), as well as degraded and scarce water resources, rising poverty, and poor air quality — spelling extreme erosion of health, economic opportunity, and environmental resources for the region’s population. The UC Merced report does make recommendations to mitigate these impacts, including “repurposing land surrounding rural disadvantaged communities into green areas, aquifer recharge projects, and wildlife corridors,” and bringing to the area cleaner industries, such as solar panel production. It also suggests that cleaner energy sources for heating and cooling across all sectors would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. All of those would require massive investment at local, state, and federal levels.

This roundup of examples of impacts and harms on BIPOC people and their communities underscores the reality, as Beyond Pesticides has identified, that federal environmental laws, policies, and regulations “codify disproportionate harm, such as federal pesticide law that is built on a foundation that allows elevated and disproportionate risk to workers. The law effectively requires EPA to allow higher rates of harm for workers, particularly farmworkers and landscapers (who are disproportionately people of color).”

Aptly, the 2021 Daily News Blog piece for MLK Day featured this statement: “We seek to eliminate disproportionate risk, [of] elevated toxic hazards to people-of-color communities, with higher rates of pesticide-induced diseases among those who live in fenceline communities where chemicals are produced, among farmworkers who harvest the nation’s food, and among landscapers who manage our parks and children’s playing fields. We seek to transform national laws that allow risk assessments that institutionalize environmental racism by allowing for this disproportionate risk. We seek to eliminate toxic pesticides production and use through the adoption of organic land management.”

At the start of 2022, Beyond Pesticides emphasizes its commitment to advancing systemic change that can address the depth and extent of the institutional biases that allow environmental racism to continue, as well as the complexity of the “moving parts” of the food, health, environmental, and governance sectors that allow the persistence of disproportionate impacts. For example, campaigns to eliminate individual pesticides (or other chemicals) are insufficient to the gravity and extent of the threats; a precautionary approach and standards are needed to meet and remedy them.

We recently wrote, “Forty years has taught Beyond Pesticides an approach that advances systemic change to meet the challenges.” Please join, reach out, act locally and regionally, and — in honor of Dr. King — help build a healthy and thriving “network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny” for all people.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

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