Are Pesticides Racist? Yes.

by Caroline Griffith

Nearly every instance of environmental degradation is, at its heart, perpetrated by those seeking to make a profit. Those who are hurt, whether plant, animal, worker or resident, are just collateral damage. In the U.S., the effects of pollution often fall along racial lines. 

Take the case of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide with proven links to brain damage in children. Widely used in agriculture to kill a variety of pests, it can be harmful if touched, inhaled or eaten.  After years of activist pressure applied primarily by Latinx women living in California’s Central Valley, the state finally banned the use and sale of the chemical, which was patented by Dow Chemical in 1965. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has refused to ban chlorpyrifos for agricultural use (it banned residential use in 2000 due to the unacceptable risk to children), going so far as to censor farmworker testimony in its decision. On Jul. 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held en banc oral arguments regarding the EPA’s failure to ban this potent neurotoxic pesticide. The court could issue an opinion in as little as a month.

According to non-profit environmental law organization, Earthjustice, 10,000-20,000 pesticide poisonings happen among farmworkers every year. The majority of farmworkers in the U.S. are migrant workers from Mexico and Central America, and an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy study estimated that over half of the farm workers in the United States are undocumented. Lack of documentation can lead them to fear the repercussions of complaining about working conditions. They also lack union representation and in many cases aren’t covered by labor laws. Since the United States still embraces many pesticides that have been banned in the European Union, Brazil, and China due to their environmental and human health impacts, those who are working to produce what should be our most precious commodity (food), are routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals with no recourse. Their children are also at elevated risk of developmental harms, because their parents bring those pesticides home with them on their clothes and skin. Landscapers are another sector of predominantly Latinx workers who are routinely exposed to pesticides. 

Those who live nearby or downstream from farms where pesticides are used are also exposed. These dangerous chemicals also affect those who live near the plants that produce them, who tend to be low-income and communities of color who live in polluted areas because cheaper housing tends to be located in industrial “sacrifice” zones. 

Every year, the U.S. uses over 1 billion pounds of pesticides, nearly ⅕ of worldwide usage. But activists and legislators are working to change this. On August 4, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) introduced proposed legislation — the “Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act”, or (PACTPA). PACTPA would ban some of the most dangerous pesticides that are known to harm humans and the environment. It would also close loopholes that allow farms to use pesticides, create mandates for employers to report pesticide exposure and require all pesticides warning labels to be written in Spanish as well as English. PACTPA is supported by the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Farmworker Justice and the United Farmworkers, among many others.