Pesticides and Environmental Injustice

The peer-reviewed study Pesticides and Environmental Injustice in the USA: Root Causes, Current Regulatory Reinforcement and a Path Forward (2022) finds that Black, Indigenous and people of color and low-income communities shoulder a disproportionate burden of the harms caused by pesticides in the United States. 

The study found widespread evidence of greater pesticide exposure and harm in communities of color and low-income communities, both in residential and workplace settings, and concludes that these disparities exist in both rural and urban settings and occur throughout the lifecycle of pesticides, from manufacture to use. The study also finds that the disproportionate pesticide exposure and harms to these communities are being perpetuated by practices, policies, regulations and laws that are still on the books. It goes on to outline actions regulators can take right now to right these wrongs.

The study is the first-ever comprehensive assessment of U.S. disparities in pesticide protections and oversight. Published in BMC Public Health, it was coauthored by researchers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and farmworker, racial justice and conservation groups.

Press release
The study

What We Found

Disproportionate exposure: Twelve out of 14 biomarkers for harmful pesticide exposure tracked in a representative sample of the U.S. population over the past 20 years — including for DDT and several organophosphates like chlorpyrifos — were found in the blood and urine of Black or Mexican Americans at average levels as much as five times higher than in whites, according to the authors’ analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control data.

Weak farmworker protections: An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 predominately Latinx agricultural workers experience acute illness each year due to pesticide exposure, according to an EPA analysis, yet farmworkers continue to be excluded from basic pesticide protections provided to the general public.

Lax enforcement: For the most recent five years that data are available, just over 1% of pesticide-using agricultural operations were inspected for violations of basic worker protections each year, despite the fact that violations were found at nearly half of inspected facilities. Enforcement actions were taken against only 19% of violators.

Unequal risks: People with low incomes are more likely to live near the 31 pesticide manufacturing facilities that are in current violation of bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. In California, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri, people of color make up about 38% of the population, but they make up 63% of the population near these pesticide facilities.

Poisonous housing: Residential use of, and harm from, pesticides is often heavier in urban and low-income public housing. For example, 80% of such facilities in New York state applied pesticides inside apartments and in common areas on a regular basis. And 30% of pregnant African American and Dominican women in New York City had at least eight pesticides detected in a home air-monitoring study; 83% were found to have at least one pesticide in umbilical cord samples.

Exporting harm: The United States continues to allow pesticides banned within U.S. borders to be manufactured here and exported to other countries. Between 2015 and 2019, the U.S. exported neurotoxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides banned here to 42 countries. More than 80% of the importing countries are considered “low-to-middle income” and eligible for official financial development and welfare assistance from the World Bank and international organizations; 78% are estimated to have over 30% of their workforce poisoned by pesticides each year.

Why It Matters

Harms From Pesticides Are Often Irreversible

Pesticides are chemicals designed to kill living beings. They are poisons that can have serious consequences for people who are exposed to them. These consequences can include chronic disease, loss of quality of life, and even death.
Such harms don’t affect everyone equally; they often segregate based on the level of exposure. Higher exposures are more likely to lead to harms for many pesticides. Thus the societal costs of pesticide use are often borne by those with the highest exposures.

These Disparities Are Not an Accident

The cards didn’t fall this way by accident — for centuries U.S. institutions have put policies in place and encouraged practices that stacked the deck against Black, Indigenous and communities of color.

Ever since the colonization and occupation of Indigenous lands in North America by European settlers, structures of racism and class discrimination have been consistently erected and persist to this day. The resulting oppression has led to significant disparities in exposure to many pollutants, including pesticides. It’s well documented that much of this country’s wealth has been built on the backs of enslaved people and immigrant laborers. In practice that has meant people of color have routinely shouldered the greatest burden when it comes to the often-dangerous jobs required of the nation’s agricultural workers. That reality continues to inequitably expose farmworkers — 83% of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino — to the inevitable risks stemming from the fact that 90% of all pesticide use is in agriculture.

And like many communities of color, those workers and their families are likely to face greater risks from pesticides where they live, as well as where they work. It starts with housing discrimination institutionalized through racist zoning and lending practices that have barred generations of people from homeownership. Discriminatory practices have segregated those communities into underserved areas receiving much lower levels of economic and social investment than white communities. The resulting substandard housing structures and overcrowded public and low-income housing conditions have prompted routine use of dangerous pesticides as a short-term fix for chronic pest problems.

Even the manufacture of pesticides and their toxic waste byproducts disproportionately exposes those who live near these facilities — overwhelmingly low-income people of color.

From cradle to grave, pesticides disproportionately harm these communities. And that won’t change without a concerted effort by regulatory agencies. With the Biden administration’s promise to prioritize environmental justice, we’re hopeful that these pesticide exposure issues can begin to be addressed.

What Can We Do About It?

Dismantling structural racism and classism in the United States will take considerable time and require levels of government and societal participation that, unfortunately, continue to elude us. Until our country addresses that larger, societal challenge, however, there are numerous steps our regulatory institutions can take to ensure that communities of color are not excessively exposed to pesticides.

The first step is to implement what’s known as the “precautionary principle” in the United States, which is in place across Europe and in many other countries. This principle shifts the burden of proof that an activity is safe from aggrieved individuals to industry, empowering regulators to act to prevent harm in the face of any uncertainty of a product’s safety and urges meaningful exploration and implementation of pollution reduction and other less harmful alternatives. However, in the United States, many chemicals are currently considered safe until proven otherwise. There is truly a moral imperative to rectify this broader public health and civil rights issue.

But even in the absence of such a paradigm shift, this study concludes that U.S. regulators can take effective action now to alleviate some of the disproportionate suffering.

1. Eliminate or Reduce the Pesticide Safety Double Standard

Current pesticide law in the United States has two different safety standards to protect people from pesticides — one afforded to the general public and a less protective standard that covers people exposed to pesticides occupationally. Given the segregation of agricultural labor, this is a major environmental justice problem. There are multiple actions the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress can take right now to eliminate or reduce the double standard outlined in the report. 

2. Implement a System to Adequately Monitor and Account for Harms to Environmental Justice Communities 

The federal government does not have a nationwide system in place to compile and monitor the many thousands of pesticide incidents that occur every year. And even when the EPA does get reports, it often ignores them, since there are no triggers to force action. Current EPA practice is to ignore epidemiological studies — studies that monitor real people exposed to pesticides in the real world — that can give the agency vital information about how pesticides affect the health of different human populations. Instead the EPA relies solely on industry-generated studies conducted on lab animals. Without reference to epidemiological research or surveillance of pesticide harm, there’s no way to quickly determine whether a pesticide approval has been made in error or should be reconsidered.    

Along with developing a nationwide monitoring system for pesticide harm and utilizing relevant epidemiological studies, the federal government must also address the barriers that lead to the current underreporting of pesticide incidents to state agencies, such as the lack of reporting requirements for employers, lack of clinician training, and inability to report anonymously.

3. Strengthen Worker Protections

Medical monitoring of those who work occupationally with some pesticides is required by some states but not federally mandated. It is federally mandated for many occupations involving close work with other dangerous chemicals. The EPA can use its current authority to require pesticide companies to create a test capable of confirming pesticide overexposure and require this testing when working with any pesticide implicated in worker harm.
The majority of farmworkers have some difficulty reading the English language, yet English is the only language required on pesticide labels. The EPA has the authority to require labels be provided in Spanish and any other language needed to ensure that workers have access to the use instructions. The only thing stopping it is a lack of willingness to require the pesticide companies to include these labels.

4. Reduce Unintended Pesticide Harms 

Pesticide approvals are often made based on assumed compliance with complicated directions and use of protective equipment. The EPA must account for the practicality of a diverse array of pesticide users actually complying with these complex directions. If the safety measures put in place to prevent harm to pesticide users cannot be reasonably anticipated to be followed, then those safety measures cannot be used to justify the approval of a harmful pesticide.

In addition, the EPA must enforce all legally mandated protections for farmworkers in the Worker Protection Standard. This does not happen now, leaving workers vulnerable to illegal activities that can result in significant harm.

5. Adequately Protect Those Most Vulnerable to Pesticide Harm: Children

The EPA has discretion under current law to implement a children’s safety factor, which essentially reduces the level of a pesticide that is considered safe for children by tenfold. This is meant to account for the fact that children are more susceptible to the harms from pesticides — harms that are often irreversible. The EPA should fully incorporate this safety buffer for all pesticides when analyzing harm to children.  

6. Prohibit Export of Unregistered Pesticides to Other Countries 

The United States currently allows the manufacture and export of pesticides that have been banned here; most of them end up in developing countries that have high incidence of pesticide poisoning. This not only perpetuates the cycle of rich countries profiting from the misfortune of marginalized ones, but also further exposes communities that live near these U.S. manufacturing facilities to poisons our country has already deemed too dangerous for use. This practice must stop. If a pesticide is off limits here, we should not be providing it to countries that often have fewer regulatory protections than we do. 

7. Assess and Rectify Regulatory Capture Within the EPA Pesticide Office

The EPA’s pesticide office is plagued by an enormous amount of influence from the chemical industry, the very industry it’s charged with regulating. This creates an agency culture that is directly at odds with principles of scientific integrity and environmental justice. The EPA must commit to a third-party audit by the National Research Council or Government Accountability Office of the degree to which its operating procedures and management practices allow for undue industry influence and what effects that has on environmental justice communities. Strategies to effectively separate the regulators from the regulated industries could be acted upon in a manner that would benefit Black, Indigenous and low-income communities and, by extension, the broader public.

Press release
The study

Family walking in farm field by Armand Burger/iStock.