A new open access paper on environmental justice (EJ) and pesticides describes how current U.S. laws, regulations, policies, and practices perpetuate disparities in pesticide exposure and harm. The paper has an illustrious list of co-authors, including PAN partners Nathan Donley, Ph.D., at the Center for Biological Diversity and Jeannie Economos from the Farmworker Association of Florida, as well as the “Father of Environmental Justice” and famed author Dr. Robert Bullard. There’s a lot more to the paper than I can cover here, and it is worth a read – especially the recommendations at the end. Here are a few highlights (lowlights, really):
Pesticide manufacturers in low-income communities
The paper reviewed data on 31 pesticide manufacturing facilities that were in “significant violation” of environmental laws (including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), and compared them to state averages. The findings? Pesticide manufacturing facilities in the U.S. that violate environmental laws are disproportionately located in low-income communities.
Disparities were greatest in California and several southern states (AR, GA, LA, MO, SC, TN), where 51% of the people living within one mile of the facilities had incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level — the official marker for being considered “low-income.” Additionally, 63% of the population living within one mile of the facilities in these states were Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). These numbers compare with the all-state averages of 44% and 37%, respectively.
Pesticides in people’s bodies
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducts biomonitoring of blood and urine in the U.S. population and reports human exposure to environmental chemicals, including pesticides. The CDC doesn’t test for every single pesticide but has chosen certain chemicals and their breakdown products, or metabolites, to monitor in the U.S. population.
Two groups – Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic Black people – tend to have higher average urinary and blood levels of several pesticides. Of 14 pesticides/metabolites found in high enough concentrations to identify a geometric mean for the three analyzed demographic subgroups (non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic Black, and Mexican American), the average urinary and serum concentrations were higher for 8 of the 14 in Mexican Americans, and 10 of the 14 in non-Hispanic Black people, compared to the national average.
Among non-Hispanic white people, only 3 of 14 were found at levels higher than average for the total population. Non-Hispanic Black people or Mexican Americans had higher average concentrations than non-Hispanic white people for 12 of the 14 pesticides/metabolites analyzed.
The authors also looked at the highest exposed individuals (the 95th percentile) of these subgroups. For that data set, there were 35 pesticides/metabolites reliably identified, and non-Hispanic Black people or Mexican Americans had higher concentrations than non-Hispanic white people for 26 of 35 pesticides/metabolites studied.
A double standard in the regulatory world
Another key highlight from the paper is the difference between risk assessments for different populations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluates pesticides using one risk assessment approach for the general population, who are exposed via diet (food, water) and residential use. But for farmworkers and other workers exposed to pesticides occupationally, EPA uses a cost-benefit approach. This difference, the authors say, “institutionalizes the practice of prioritizing some people’s lives over others and, by design, leads to enormous disparities in who is being harmed by pesticides.”
In addition to this double standard, there’s an international double standard discussed by the authors. U.S. law allows for the export of pesticides that aren’t registered here, including pesticides that have been banned due to human or environmental harms, for use in other countries – often in the Global South. This double standard was the basis of PAN's first campaign as a global network nearly 40 years ago, and the work continues to this day.
Change the system to change the world
The authors of this paper make several recommendations for immediate action to address the injustices identified in the paper, and highlight the inability to make radical changes within our current system:
We believe it is impossible to truly “solve” this environmental injustice in the context of our current system, which masquerades as scientific norm in a country that has consistently normalized oppression to people of color. It is this system that attempts to monetize people’s lives and well-being, attempting to determine whether any resulting harm from the action is “worth it” (with the implicit message that some people’s lives are not worth as much as others). It is a system that unduly benefits the entrenched, capitalist agrochemical regime by consistently prioritizing powerful economic markets at the expense of people’s lives and well-being.
One area of meaningful action would be for the U.S. to adopt the Precautionary Principle in regulating pesticides, as is practiced in Europe. Basically, action would be taken to reduce risk from chemicals in the face of suggestive evidence of harm, even if uncertain. The Principle permits a lower level of proof of harm to be used in policymaking whenever the consequences of waiting for higher levels of proof may be very costly and/or irreversible. Sounds like common sense, no?