People of color and low income communities are more exposed to pesticides in the U.S., study finds

“For too long communities of color have served as literal dumping grounds for many of our nation’s most dangerous toxic chemicals, including pesticides."


People of color and low-income communities in the U.S. are at greater risk for exposure to pesticides, a new study has found. 

While this is the case for many environmental pollutants, the study published in BMC Public Health Tuesday was the first to take an in-depth look at the differences in pesticide protections and regulations in the U.S. 

“Like many other pollutants, pesticides are a major environmental justice issue,” Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University, said in a press release. “The cost of these chemicals isn’t just paid for at the cash register, it’s also being paid for by communities that have been marginalized for centuries. The Biden administration can, and must, move aggressively to right this long-ignored injustice.”

The study was conducted by Texas Southern University, Spelman College, Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, Advance Carolina, Migrant Clinicians Network, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides and the Center for Biological Diversity. It found that Black and Mexican people in the U.S. had biomarkers for 12 harmful pesticides in their blood and urine at levels as much as five times higher than white U.S. residents. It also found that people of color in California, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri make up about 38% of the population, but they make up 63 percent of the population living near 31 pesticide-manufacturing plants that violate environmental laws.

One of the major reasons for the disparity in exposure is the fact that farmworkers are disproportionately exposed to pesticides, The Guardian explained. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pesticide laws apply to consumers, but have exceptions for agricultural workers. However, around 90 percent of U.S. pesticide use takes place on the farm, and 83 percent of farmworkers identify as Hispanic. 

“These workers somehow are seen as expendable,” Bullard said, as The Guardian reported. “This study shows the systemic neglect that [led to] a whole workforce being an underclass and not given the same weight when it comes to health and safety.”

Another factor is that pesticides are more often used against cockroaches, rodents and other pests in low-income housing that tends to be older and poorly maintained. Pesticides are applied at 80 percent of low-income housing developments in New York state, and at least eight pesticides were discovered in the air of the homes of 30 percent of pregnant African American and Dominican women living in New York City, the press release said. 

The inequality persists beyond the borders of the U.S. There are several pesticides banned in the U.S. that the country still makes here and then ships abroad, according to a summary of the study’s findings. The country exported neurotoxic organophosphate and carbamate pesticides to 42 countries between 2015 and 2019, more than 80 percent of which were considered “low-to-middle income.” 

The study authors made several recommendations for policy makers based on their findings:

  1. Getting rid of the double standard so that protections are not weaker for agricultural laborers. 
  2. Create a nationwide system to monitor and assess the harms caused by pesticides. 
  3. Further strengthen worker protections by creating a federal program to monitor the health of those exposed to pesticides for their jobs and make sure safety instructions are available in more languages besides English. 
  4. Reduce the harms caused by pesticides by considering that they may not always be used as directed and enforcing existing worker protections. 
  5. Take full advantage of regulations designed to protect children, who are especially vulnerable to pesticides. 
  6. Stop importing banned pesticides to other countries.
  7. Audit the EPA to make sure the chemical industry is not influencing its decisions. 

“For too long communities of color have served as literal dumping grounds for many of our nation’s most dangerous toxic chemicals, including pesticides,” Fatemeh Shafiei, director of environmental studies and associate professor of political science at Spelman College, said in the press release. “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.”


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