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Pesticides and Racism: From Manufacturing, to Delivery, to Application. Here's how to fix it.

Pesticides and Racism

Follow the life of pesticides, and you will find structural racism at every step. From manufacturing to usage, the health of people of color and people with low income are disproportionately at risk of exposure. These increased and serious health risks have resulted from decades of US policy and regulatory practice that downplay pesticides’ dangers and put farmworkers’ and fenceline communities’ health at risk by excluding them from basic protections. A powerful new letter, signed by 120 diverse organizations including Migrant Clinicians Network, calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to address this structural racism in part by building better protections for manufacturing communities, agricultural workers, and home users. The letter follows the publication of a peer-reviewed study that demonstrates that pesticides disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities across their life cycle. Here, we review a few of the elements of that study.

Where are pesticides manufactured?

Typically, in low-income communities and communities of color. Air and water contamination from manufacturing affects the long-term health of the nearby residents. What’s more, manufacturing facilities in lower income areas tend to invest less in pollution reduction than those in higher income areas.

Once they are made, where do they go?

Typically, to low-income communities and communities of color. The paper outlines numerous studies uncovering the racism inherent in pesticide exposure, including this study: “In 2019, more than eight million pounds of pesticides linked to childhood cancers were used in the 11 California counties that had a majority Latinx population (>50%), resulting in 4.2 pounds of these pesticides used per person. This contrasts sharply with the 770,000 pounds of these same pesticides used in the 25 California counties with the fewest Latinx residents (<24%), resulting in 0.35 pounds of these pesticides used per person. Both groups of counties have comparable land area and population.”

The majority of pesticide usage is in agriculture, and so farmworkers and their families have always been the most highly exposed group of people to agricultural pesticides, the paper notes. The paper also outlines numerous studies showing occupational exposure to agricultural pesticides is associated with increased risk of serious health issues, including breast cancer in California Latinx women and cognitive and behavioral effects on children of farmworker women. 

How can we fix it? 

Pesticide exposure, including for farmworkers, is rooted in US law, regulations, policies, and regulatory practice, the paper contends, with inadequate protections for farmworkers, children, and other highly affected populations, plus ineffective and inadequate pesticide safety standards to realistically reflect pesticide usage. The paper outlines seven primary actions to alleviate some of the environmental injustices they outlined:

  1. Eliminate or reduce the pesticide safety double standard.
  2. Implement a system to adequately monitor and account for harms to environmental justice communities. 
  3. Strengthen worker protections.
  4. Reduce unintended pesticide harms.
  5. Adequately protect those most vulnerable to pesticide harm – children.
  6. Prohibit export of unregistered pesticides to other countries.
  7. Assess and rectify regulatory capture within the EPA pesticide office.

The letter, released earlier today, brings together a wide-ranging group of supporting organizations, from pesticide action groups, to farmworker advocacy groups, to conservation and environmental health advocates. The group reiterated the seven calls to action, adding the demands to protect communities from disasters related to agrochemical production facilities, and to address the impacts to communities near agrochemical production and storage facilities.

“The letter and the supporting research paper bring together diverse stakeholders for an important goal: to end the longstanding structural racism around pesticide production and usage that disproportionately harms people of color and low-income people,” said Amy K. Liebman, MPA, Chief Program Officer for Workers, Environment, and Climate at MCN.

Read more about each of these solutions, plus the in-depth breakdown on pesticide production and usage, at BMC Public Health: Pesticides and Environmental Injustice in the USA: Root Causes, Current Regulatory Reinforcement and a Path Forward

Read the letter and see the 120 organizations who signed it.

Read more about each of the solutions, plus the in-depth breakdown on pesticide production and usage, at BMC Public Health: Pesticides and Environmental Injustice in the USA: Root Causes, Current Regulatory Reinforcement and a Path Forward