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Earth Day: Environmental Racism Persists with Antibiotic Usage in Agriculture

a farmworker harvesting apples

[Earth Day is rooted in a tradition of environmental activism and, in the 51 years since its inaugural celebration, has become a microphone to amplify issues in environmental justice. As The New Republic said in 2017, “For those who live with environmental problems every day—mostly low-income, minority, and indigenous populations in America and around the world—every day is Earth Day.” On this year’s Earth Day, we highlight yet another environmental injustice perpetrated against farmworkers in the US: the use of streptomycin as a pesticide. Migrant Clinicians Network, along with several other organizations, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for approving the spraying of streptomycin. Learn more about the lawsuit here.

In the citrus groves in Florida and California, farmworkers are at risk of exposure to sprayed antibiotics – with unknown health consequences to these overlooked, under-protected, yet highly essential workers. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has permitted the use of 650,000 pounds of the antibiotic streptomycin on orange groves, in hopes to curtailing greening disease, which is harming citrus crops – but studies indicate that antibiotic sprays have been ineffective against the disease. Farm owners are grasping for solutions, and the EPA in response is permitting the risk of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria that may harm farmworkers and their families.

“The use of streptomycin on farms is irresponsible,” explained Amy K. Liebman, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health for MCN. “This group of workers is largely foreign-born and lacking in authorization to work in the US -- and they were already insufficiently protected from environmental harm, before streptomycin. The use of antibiotics as an ineffective spray with unknown health consequences is another example of environmental racism against farmworkers.”

Laszlo Madaras, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer for MCN, warns that the consequences are likely to go beyond the farm, however. Streptomycin may become less effective as an antibiotic, should bacteria become resistant to it as a result of overuse. Streptomycin is an important second line antibiotic used against drug resistant tuberculosis.

“This is a dangerous form of broad antibiotics use,” Dr. Madaras clarified, “especially when most hospitals now have an antibiotic stewardship committee to prevent overuse of antibiotics, and the dosing of aminoglycoside antibiotics such as streptomycin have to be cautiously measured to prevent hearing and balance neurotoxicity and other health consequences.” 

“Farmworkers are already overexposed to pesticides,” added Liebman. “We need EPA to stand up for farmworkers and only permit effective ways to control citrus diseases that are safe for our workers and safe for our food supply.”





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