Pesticides and Environmental Injustice in the USA: Root Causes, Current Regulatory Reinforcement and a Path Forward 

Resource Author: Nathan Donley, Robert D. Bullard, Jeannie Economos, Iris Figueroa, Jovita Lee, Amy K. Liebman, Dominica Navarro Martinez, Fatemeh Shafiei 

Date Published: 5/9/22

Resource Type: Publication

Many environmental pollutants are known to have disproportionate effects on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as communities of low-income and wealth. The reasons for these disproportionate effects are complex and involve hundreds of years of systematic oppression kept in place through structural racism and classism in the USA. Here we analyze the available literature and existing datasets to determine the extent to which disparities in exposure and harm exist for one of the most widespread pollutants in the world – pesticides. Our objective was to identify and discuss not only the historical injustices that have led to these disparities, but also the current laws, policies and regulatory practices that perpetuate them to this day with the ultimate goal of proposing achievable solutions. Disparities in exposures and harms from pesticides are widespread, impacting BIPOC and low-income communities in both rural and urban settings and occurring throughout the entire lifecycle of the pesticide from production to end-use. These disparities are being perpetuated by current laws and regulations through 1) a pesticide safety double standard, 2) inadequate worker protections, and 3) export of dangerous pesticides to developing countries. Racial, ethnic and income disparities are also maintained through policies and regulatory practices that 4) fail to implement environmental justice Executive Orders, 5) fail to account for unintended pesticide use or provide adequate training and support, 6) fail to effectively monitor and follow-up with vulnerable communities post-approval, and 7) fail to implement essential protections for children. Here we’ve identified federal laws, regulations, policies, and practices that allow for disparities in pesticide exposure and harm to remain entrenched in everyday life for environmental justice communities. This is not simply a pesticides issue, but a broader public health and civil rights issue. The true fix is to shift the USA to a more just system based on the Precautionary Principle to prevent harmful pollution exposure to everyone, regardless of skin tone or income. However, there are actions that can be taken within our existing framework in the short term to make our unjust regulatory system work better for everyone.