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Daily News Blog

22
Apr

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Community at Disproportionate Risk from Pesticides, Study Finds

(Beyond Pesticides, April 22, 2022) A study published on April 18 finds that people in U.S. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities, as well as those living in low-income communities, endure a very disproportionate rate of exposure to pesticides, and of subsequent risks of harm. It finds that such disparities exist in both urban and rural communities, and at all points in the pesticide “life cycle,” from manufacture to application. A section of Beyond Pesticides’ recent mega-issue of Pesticides and You, “Retrospective 2021: A Call to Urgent Action,” is devoted to such inequities. Section IV, “Disproportionate Pesticide Harm Is Racial Injustice: Documenting Victimization: Structural Racism,” reprises Beyond Pesticides’ 2021 coverage of environmental injustices. It also calls for urgent action re: federal and state “evaluations that go into toxic chemical regulation . . . to reform and replace the current regulatory decision-making process, which is empirically racist, with one that acknowledges and cares for those with the highest real-world vulnerabilities and exposure[s].”

The first comprehensive assessment of disparities in pesticide protections and oversight in the U.S., the study paper appeared in the journal BMC Public Health. The authors set out the broad history of how humanity moved from “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” approaches to pests, practiced by indigenous populations the world over — through use of “the largest and most effective pest controller,” nature itself — to the current era of massive deployment of chemical pesticides. They also provide the overlay of the dynamic intersection of institutional racism and class discrimination in the U.S. with the current, chemically intensive, paradigm. “This structural racism and classism, defined here as a system brought about by historical, institutional, cultural, or behavioral societal actions that routinely disadvantage, harm, and cumulatively oppress BIPOC and/or people of low-income or wealth, has led to significant disparities in exposure to many pollutants that can lead to premature death or chronic disease.”

The acute and chronic health impacts of pesticide exposure are myriad. Beyond Pesticides identifies specific diseases and other health anomalies linked to exposures to pesticides, and points readers to research papers that provide evidence of such links, in its Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database. Through its Gateway on Pesticide Hazards and Safe Pest Management, the public can find details on roughly 400 pesticides, including fact sheets, uses, health and environmental effects, and alternatives.

The disproportionate exposures and impacts of pesticide use for BIPOC and low-income community members tend to occur through occupational activities, largely in agriculture, and/or via places of residence, which may be near to agricultural storage and application sites or pesticide manufactories, or in substandard, overcrowded, and usually urban housing that is typically subject to the use of pesticides as a short-term fix for chronic pest problems. Of course, these inequities are layered over the typical exposure routes to which nearly everyone in the U.S. is vulnerable: through food, contaminated drinking water and air, and/or pesticides used on public and private landscapes and in all kinds of buildings.

The peer-reviewed study was conducted by researchers from environmental/conservation, farmworker, and racial justice organizations, as well as from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). The researchers’ objective was “to identify and discuss not only the historical injustices that have led to these disparities, but also the current laws, policies and regulatory practices that perpetuate them to this day with the ultimate goal of proposing achievable solutions.” The team asserts that the disparities identified continue via current regulations and statutes that (1) inadequately protect workers, (2) operate with a pesticide safety “double standard,” and (3) permit the export of toxic pesticides to “developing” countries, as detailed in these specific findings:

  • disproportionate exposures to harmful pesticides: biomarkers for 12 dangerous pesticides, tracked over the past 20 years, were found in the blood and urine of Mexican-American and Black people at average levels up to five times those in white people. 
  • weaker protections for agricultural workers: although 10,000–20,000 — largely Latinx — farmworkers are sickened annually from pesticide exposure, such workers are not covered by the same regulatory pesticide protections provided to the general public. 
  • unequal risks: people of color comprise 38% of the aggregate population of California, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, and Louisiana, but that 38% represents 63% of those living nearby to 31 pesticide manufacturing facilities that are in violation of environmental laws (such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act).
  • poor enforcement: based on available data for a recent five-year period, approximately 1% of agricultural operations that use pesticides had any annual inspections for violations of worker protections — despite violations found at nearly half of inspected facilities; further, enforcement actions proceeded against only 19% of the violators.
  •  toxic housing: 80% of low-income housing sites in New York State, for example, regularly apply pesticides indoors; a home air quality monitoring study found that 30% of pregnant African American and Dominican women in New York City had at least eight pesticides in their bodies, and 83% had at least one pesticide in umbilical cord samples.
  • export of harm: pesticides banned in the U.S. are nevertheless allowed to be produced here and exported; the study notes that organophosphate and carbamate pesticides banned domestically were sold to 42 countries between 2015 and 2019, and 78% of importing countries report more than 30% of their workforce members are poisoned by pesticides annually.

On the matter of the weaker protections for farmworkers and others exposed vocationally to pesticides, the authors explain: “For the general population, exposed mainly to pesticides through their diet, water and residential use, EPA takes a risk-only approach — approving a pesticide only if the agency determines that it will not result in significant harm. Yet for farmworkers and those exposed to pesticides mainly through their work, EPA takes a cost-benefit approach whereby harm to workers is allowed as long as the purported benefit of the pesticide, presumably to the grower, sufficiently offsets those harms.” Such unequal treatment is dangerous, unethical, and functionally racist.

In addition, the paper asserts that racial, ethnic, and income disparities persist in part because of policies and regulatory practices that fail to:

  • implement Executive Orders (EOs) on EJ (environmental justice) matters, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) failure to implement EO 12898, “Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-income Populations” — in the 25 years since its 1994 issue.

  • account for off-label pesticide use and provide the training and support that could reduce such uses; examples of the problems include these, from the research: 14–65% of surveyed farmworkers across multiple states reported receiving no pesticide safety instruction by their employer; and although EPA touts the refrain, “the label is the law,” it nevertheless does not require that pesticide manufacturers provide pesticide labels in any language other than English — despite the facts that 83% of U.S. farmworkers are Latinx or Hispanic, and only 28% of farmworkers report that they can read English well.

  • monitor and follow-up effectively with vulnerable communities once a pesticide has been approved; new pesticide products are often approved with minimal toxicity assessments, making an effective monitoring system (for health and environmental impacts) critical; but periodic review of registered pesticides is compromised by a lack of both epidemiological data and follow-up data on people with the greatest exposures; the paper asserts, “An underfunded surveillance system that relies exclusively on a dataset that extensively underrepresents harm to BIPOC and lower-income communities is designed to fail.”

  • implement important protections for children, who are uniquely vulnerable to developmental toxicants; the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) required an extra margin of safety for children — a “safety factor” that would reduce the amount of pesticide considered “safe” for children by tenfold; but the researchers note that “implementation of the . . . safety factor has been dismal from the outset. . . . A recent in-depth analysis of 47 non-organophosphate pesticides found that only 13% of acute food exposures and 12% of chronic food exposures incorporated any FQPA children’s safety factor whatsoever.”

The research paper states the “meta” issue clearly: “This is not simply a pesticides issue, but a broader public health and civil rights issue. The true fix is to shift the [U.S.] to a more just system based on the Precautionary Principle to prevent harmful pollution exposure to everyone, regardless of skin tone or income. However, there are actions that can be taken within our existing framework in the short term to make our unjust regulatory system work better for everyone.”

The solutions proposed by the researchers include regulatory actions that could reduce the disparate impacts of pesticides on BIPOC communities by:

  • eliminating (or reducing the magnitude of) the pesticide safety double standard
  • implementing a system to adequately monitor and account for harms to environmental justice communities
  • strengthening worker protections
  • reducing unintended pesticide harms
  • adequately protecting children, who are the most vulnerable to pesticide harms
  • prohibiting export of unregistered pesticides to other countries
  • assessing and rectifying regulatory capture within the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs

Beyond Pesticides has long pointed to the Precautionary Principle as an optimal approach to the registration and use of all pesticides. In 2019, for example, we argued for precaution as a fundamental and important platform for pesticide reform, given the regulatory inefficacy and negligence of EPA. We have also called attention to the “regulatory capture” of federal agencies, including the USDA’s (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s) National Organic Standards Board, and EPA — particularly, the Office of Pesticide Programs, as detailed here, here, and here.

The study makes abundantly clear the importance of the work of environmental justice, and other health and environmental, organizations, which have welcomed the publication of this research. Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida commented, “The people doing some of the most important work in our country — harvesting the food that feeds the nation — bear a disproportionate burden of the toxic pesticide exposure that risks their and their family’s health and lives. This report makes this unequivocally clear, so we ask our political leaders committed to environmental justice, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

Amy K. Liebman of the Migrant Clinicians Network added, “Our regulatory systems exclude farmworkers from basic protections. This results in farmworkers and their families being regularly overexposed to pesticides that have acute and chronic health repercussions, and negatively affect the health of agricultural communities. Strong and enforced regulations are needed now.” Another response came from Fatemeh Shafiei, director of environmental studies and associate professor of political science at Spelman College: “For too long communities of color have served as literal dumping grounds for many of our nation’s most dangerous toxic chemicals, including pesticides. This must change. It’s time for state and federal regulators across the U.S. to jumpstart aggressive efforts to put an end to this deeply troubling form of environmental racism.”

Finally, Nathan Donley, PhD, lead author on the research and environmental health science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, commented, “Pesticides are more likely to harm people of color because of firmly entrenched policies and laws that stack the deck against them. This research identifies concrete steps the Biden administration can take to begin righting these wrongs.” Beyond Pesticides will continue to monitor progress on inequities related to pesticides, agriculture, farmworker well-being, and health of BIPOC communities in the U.S.

For current reporting on matters related to environmental justice, see Beyond Pesticides’ Daily News Blog EJ archives. We also recommend that readers check out Section IV, “Disproportionate Pesticide Harm Is Racial Injustice: Documenting Victimization: Structural Racism” in our Retrospective 2021: A Call to Urgent Action” issue of Pesticides and You.

Sources: https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-022-13057-4, https://biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/pesticides-and-environmental-justice/, and https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2022/04/19/18849137.php

Note: BMC Public Health is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health. 

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

 

 

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