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The Fight Against Pesticides in Communities of Color

The United States uses around one billion pounds of pesticides each year to control weeds, insects, and disease-carrier pests (Reviews on Environmental Health). From agriculture and public and home landscaping to household cleaning supplies, different types of pesticides have increased food production and deterred the spread of disease and viruses. Still, their use has been linked to damaging environmental effects and is a cause of concern for human health, especially with repeated exposure. Recent lawsuits against pesticide manufacturing companies whose products have been linked to cancer have led to billions in settlements. Despite this, the federal government approves them, even as environmental justice activists fight to keep poisonous and fatal pesticides out of their communities. 

Each year, 385 million people globally fall ill from pesticide poisoning, with an estimated 11,000 human fatalities (Pesticide Atlas). When we think of pesticides, our minds may wander off to rural farmlands. However, toxic pesticides and herbicides are being used in major cities today, directly harming low-income Black and Brown communities. A 2020 report found that 42 of the 50 Manhattan parks treated with Roundup in 2018 were in Harlem (The Black Institute). The study also revealed that Brooklyn, with an 89% native Black population, is the most heavily sprayed county in the entire state. Not only are these toxins affecting the lives of Black and Brown families in these communities, but they also affect the employees responsible for applying them daily. Of the 203 NYC Parks Department staff members, 112 are Black or Latine.

TAKE ACTION

• Support the Agricultural Justice Project, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the Farmworker Association of Florida.

• Urge your local representatives to support a ban on organophosphates and Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act. Sign this petition to show your support for PACTPA.

• Use WhatsOnMyFood.org to choose foods that use fewer pesticides, and look for the Equitable Food Initiative’s “Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured” labels when grocery shopping.

Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is the herbicide used most widely to kill weeds and is classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization (Planet Watch). As of 2022, Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, have settled over 100,000 Roundup lawsuits, with 30,000 more pending (Forbes). The suits claim that using the weedkiller, thus exposure to glyphosate, resulted in users getting cancer. And the company’s failure to warn of the risk held them liable. A 2018 study found that glyphosate exposure increased the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by 41%. The Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for regulating pesticides, asserts that the pesticide is “unlikely” a human carcinogen and has “no risks of concern to human health” (EPA). 

The EPA often stands alone when it comes to approving and banning pesticides. It continues to permit 85 pesticides that have been banned or are transitioning out in China, the European Union, and Brazil, the other largest agricultural producers and pesticide users (Environmental Health). Unlike other nations, the EPA regulates pesticides through a cost-benefit analysis. Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the EPA must determine whether a pesticide causes an “unreasonable risk to man or the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of any pesticide” (EPA).

 Children and pregnant women are most vulnerable to the life-altering health effects of pesticides, which have been linked to miscarriages, congenital disabilities, and learning or developmental disabilities in children (CDC).

As the largest agricultural state, with over 700,000 farmworkers, California is unique in its fight for environmental justice against pesticides (Planet Watch). A 2015 report found that more than half of the glyphosate used in California (54%) was applied in eight of its most impoverished counties in the agricultural Central Valley, where 53% of residents are Latine or Hispanic (Center for Biological Diversity). Hispanic children are 46% more likely to attend schools near pesticide dumping grounds than white children (The Black Institute).

Chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin that kills insects by attacking their nervous systems, has widely affected the health of farmworkers in California (Grist). The EPA publicly misrepresented the results of a two-day meeting with the EPA about banning the insecticide, furthering environmental racism against the people responsible for getting food to the tables of Americans every day (ThinkProgress).

Because of the federal government’s lack of action, cities like Philadelphia are taking matters into their own hands by introducing bills that ban toxic herbicides on all city and public grounds (Philadelphia Inquirer). In 2019, California officially prohibited the selling and usage of chlorpyrifos (NPR). As of 2021, the EPA banned the use of the pesticide on food crops (EPA).

Pesticides have a long history in communities of color in the United States, and like most issues that affect these communities, it is rooted in institutional racism. Effective environmental justice must safeguard communities where all people can live, work, and play without fear of exposure to toxic materials and conditions (The Black Institute). The burden lies on white residents of communities to advocate for communities of color who continue to be silenced about the real harm they are experiencing.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide and is classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization.

• Hispanic children are 46% more likely to attend school near pesticide-dumping grounds than white children.

• Exposure to the most common pesticides can cause adverse health effects.

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