Analysis finds majority of paraquat, banned in 60 countries, is used in counties where Latinos make up 75% of the population or higher.

Low-income Latinos living in California are disproportionately threatened by paraquat, a highly toxic herbicide widely used on US cropland, a new analysis of state data finds.

The notorious weedkiller is banned in more than 60 countries and for some uses in the US, like golf courses, because it is so dangerous. But the US government still allows its use on crops, putting agricultural workers or those living in communities near where it is spread at risk.

Most of the paraquat sprayed in California is used in five counties with a Latino population of 75% or higher, and poverty rates of at least 20%, the first-of-its-kind analysis, conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) non-profit, found. It reframes the debate around paraquat in environmental justice terms.

“We were shocked when we saw, in particular, how these five communities are disproportionately exposed, and are disproportionately Latino and poor,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s policy director.

Paraquat is linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, respiratory damage and kidney disease, and ingestion of a single teaspoon is considered deadly. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ignored a “mountain of evidence” showing the substance causes Parkinson’s disease, said Alexander Rabine, the analysis’s author. That includes an epidemiological study of central California farming communities that clearly showed an increased risk of Parkinson’s.

Research has found the substance interferes with dopamine production and regulation, and people with Parkinson’s have reduced dopamine levels. Still, the EPA has resisted banning it in the US.

EWG’s analysis looked at data from California because it is the only state with readily available paraquat figures – it found about 80% of the substance was spread in Latino-majority census tracts between 2017 and 2021. Nearly all of California’s farm workers are Latino, federal data shows.

Overall, 5.3m lb of paraquat were sprayed in California, the analysis found, though its use was concentrated in central counties that produce fruit and nut crops, like almonds, grapes, pistachios, alfalfa, cotton, walnuts and pomegranates.

In one of those counties, Kern, home to Bakersfield, EWG found 1.2m lb were spread across about 1,200 sq miles of farmland. The county’s poverty rate is nearly 30%.

The substance is especially pernicious because it stays in the dirt or moves through the air and harms people living nearby, including agricultural workers and their families. Research has found those living within a third of a mile of where the chemical is sprayed are twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s, EWG noted. Workers also get the chemicals on their clothes and bring it into their homes, where children, who are especially vulnerable, can be exposed. “No one should be exposed to pesticides at that level,” Rabine said.

Outside of California, the herbicide is widely used in Iowa and the Mississippi River valley. Federal law requires the EPA to consider pesticides’ economic benefit before enacting restrictions, and an agency analysis “concluded that these [health] risks were outweighed by the benefits of the use of paraquat”.

The EPA also states that the labels provide specific instructions on how to safely apply paraquat, but public health advocates say farmers often do not follow the directions, do not provide adequate protection for workers, and pressure workers into cutting corners.

An ongoing federal lawsuit brought by public health groups asks a court to order paraquat off the market, but states can also ban it, Faber said.

“What’s clear is so long as the EPA is ignoring the links between paraquat and Parkinson’s, and giving greater weight to the needs of farmers than the needs of farm workers, then it will be up to California to act,” Faber said.


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Updated: August 16, 2017