US pesticide regulation is failing the hardest-hit communities. It’s time to fix it.

The environmental justice movement has come a long way over the past 50 years. There is now wide recognition that all people and communities, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, have a right to equal protection and equitable enjoyment of the benefits provided by environmental laws and regulations.

Yet the increasingly well-documented reality is that people of color and low-income communities in the United States and around the world continue to shoulder the societal burden of harmful pollution.

As highlighted in our recently published study, a troubling example of ongoing environmental injustice is the disproportionate impact these communities suffer from pesticides, among the most widespread environmental pollutants.

That unsettling truth was driven home recently by the California Environmental Protection Agency, which found that the pollution burden showing the greatest racial, ethnic, and income disparities in the state is pesticide use. In other words, in California, if someone wanted to guess your ethnic or racial background based only on your proximity to a harmful pollutant, knowing your exposure to pesticides would give them the highest likelihood of success.

To facilitate efforts to address that alarming disparity, our study offers a blueprint for how this administration can begin to fix some of the longstanding issues that have facilitated unjust and disproportionate exposures to these harmful chemicals.

Acknowledging the low likelihood of any legislative fix to this problem making its way to the president’s desk in the current political climate, we have focused our blueprint on actions that can be taken without Congress. Either by rulemaking, implementing policy changes, or shifts in regulatory practice, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under this administration—or any presidential administration, for that matter—has a tremendous amount of discretion under current law to put meaningful protections in place that can save lives and prevent disease, especially for the most impacted communities in the country.

The problem

Everyone in the United States is exposed to pesticides on a regular basis. In fact, there is a near-100% certainty that all of us have pesticides in our blood or urine right now. This is the inevitable outcome of using over 1 billion pounds of pesticides each year in the U.S.—nearly a quarter of total pesticide use worldwide. And exposures will likely change on a daily basis, depending on what each individual eats, drinks, or comes into contact with at home or work.

But just as important as understanding our own individual potential for exposure to these chemicals, many of which can be harmful to humans, is acknowledging that this burden is not distributed equally throughout our society.

Our analysis of data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed this. Three demographic groups were studied—Mexican American, non-Hispanic white, and non-Hispanic Black populations. Mexican Americans or non-Hispanic Blacks had higher blood and urine pesticide levels than non-Hispanic whites for 12 out of the 14 pesticides analyzed. Additionally, when we only looked at the most highly exposed individuals in each demographic group, Mexican Americans or non-Hispanic Blacks still tended to have higher exposures than non-Hispanic whites. In short, both the averages were higher and the extremes were higher for Mexican Americans and Blacks than for whites. This is important because the extent of one’s exposure often correlates more closely with the onset of disease, making the highest exposed individuals the most likely to suffer negative effects from pesticide exposure.

So why are people of certain races/ethnicities more likely to be exposed to pesticides? First, it’s important to note that there is rarely ever a single explanation for inequality observed among multiple different racial and ethnic groups, and common explanatory factors can often manifest in differing levels of inequality among different groups. “People of color” are not a monolith but are in fact richly diverse. Second, other overlapping variables like income level can play a role in perpetuating these disparities. But we strongly caution against viewing these observed racial/ethnic disparities in pollution exposure as mainly related to poverty. In fact, race and ethnicity remains a potent predictor for many pollution threats regardless of income level. African Americans who make $50,000-$60,000 a year tend to live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than neighborhoods inhabited by whites with annual incomes of less than $10,000. There are many reasons for this, including structural racism in the form of housing/residential discrimination and redlining, and the fact that individuals in different racial and ethnic groups can differ greatly in their ability to utilize monetary gains to change occupations or move away from neighborhoods where pollution is greatest.

Regardless, it can be tempting for many people to largely view pesticide exposure as a consequence of personal choices and ultimately place blame on the individual in question. But the ability to control one’s exposure to pesticides, much like exposure to most pollutants, inherently comes from a position of privilege.


Most people recognize eating organically grown food as one way to reduce pesticide exposure because the food is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides. And it’s true that organic food has much lower pesticide residues than nonorganic food and eating an organic diet is associated with drastically lower pesticide levels in your body. But organic food also tends to be more expensive than nonorganic food and not all places that sell food have organic options available. Furthermore, less than 4% of organic farmers are people of color and there is a general lack of racial diversity among staff at organic farm organizations, which can impact awareness and skepticism among certain groups. Organic products are also not generally procured in many federal food assistance programs. All of this imposes an accessibility barrier in which geographic location, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, and income can impose significant limits on an individual’s ability to lower pesticide exposure through diet.


The use of pesticides in or near the home can significantly increase exposure. Reducing pesticide use in and around the home is easier for homeowners, opposed to renters, because they have greater control over which household products they use. While over 70% of white households own their home, less than half of households of color do.

The same institutional racism responsible for the disparities in homeownership among whites and people of color has also led to disparities in housing conditions. Past use of eminent domain for “economic development,” racially motivated zoning ordinances, and the practice of “redlining” have torn apart whole neighborhoods and partitioned people of color into areas that have deteriorated due to less economic and social investment. This lack of investment, often coupled with crowded, substandard living conditions in public or low-income housing, means that chronic pest problems are more likely. Eighty percent of public housing developments in New York state applied pesticides inside apartments and in common areas regularly. In public housing units in Boston, where 98% of residents identified as Hispanic or Black, over half of units had at least six pesticides present in dust samples.

Another facet to consider is that risks from pesticides begin in the places where they are manufactured. People of color are more likely to live nearer to hazardous areas—like the many defunct pesticide manufacturing facilities that are currently federally-designated hazardous waste contamination sites. Furthermore, new polluting facilities are often built specifically in low-income neighborhoods of color because those communities tend to have less political clout and have been marginalized in our society. We analyzed the demographics around all of the pesticide manufacturing facilities that were in current violation of bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and found that people who live near these facilities are disproportionately low income and, in some areas like California and in the South, people of color.


Nearly 90% of pesticides in the United States are used in agriculture, which can disproportionately expose farm workers and their families to harmful chemicals. This is due to both the nature of the work and the propensity of workers to live near agricultural fields. Farmworkers tend to have much higher levels of pesticides in their blood and urine—in some cases nearly 400 times greater than the national average. And those high exposures can unknowingly transfer to farmworkers’ children via household dust or even a hug after a long day at work.

The EPA estimates that every year approximately 13,000 to 15,000 U.S. farmworkers fall ill due to pesticide exposure. And when accounting for undiagnosed workers, that number could be as high as 300,000 acute illnesses every year.

The environmental injustices still faced by U.S. farmworkers today are rooted in an agricultural system that, historically, was built on slavery, white supremacy, and the exploitation of people of color. This history explains why 98% of U.S. farmland is owned by whites and the vast majority of agricultural laborers are people of color. Over the course of a few hundred years, farm work transitioned from being done almost exclusively by African slaves and their descendants to overwhelmingly immigrant populations coming mainly from Mexico and Central America. Today, three out of every four farmworkers are born outside the U.S., and 83% are Hispanic.

While farmworkers are integral to the American economy, they still face harsh working conditions with little pay. The dangerous work is often physically exhausting and offers very little prospect of upward mobility. A typical farmworker makes less than $20,000 a year in personal income and one in three have family incomes below the federal poverty line.

Agricultural exceptionalism,” whereby agriculture is specifically excluded from many U.S. labor and occupational safety laws, can exacerbate the well-documented pesticide risks that farmworkers face on the job. Furthermore, while the safety of nearly every other occupation in the nation is overseen by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), pesticide safety in agriculture has largely been relegated to the EPA, the very agency in charge of approving pesticides in the first place. And although the majority of farmworkers are not English speakers, only last year did the EPA finally announce a plan to slowly transition to requiring Spanish language labeling on pesticides.

Institutional Failings

1. Children remain unprotected

Following recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA) established a mandate that the EPA further protect children from pesticide harm due to their heightened susceptibility to chemical exposures. This protection came in the form of a 10X safety buffer, reducing allowable exposures to all people from pesticides by tenfold as a way of protecting young children and the developing fetus. Given that children are more susceptible to harm from pesticides and children of color are more likely to be exposed to pesticides, this was widely seen as one way to protect the most vulnerable of at-risk populations.

Unfortunately, Congress’s intent regarding protecting young children from pesticides has never been fully realized. The National Research Council found that the EPA only put in place the tenfold child safety factor for five out of 59 pesticides it analyzed, and a larger analysis of more than 400 pesticides by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only 22% had the full safety factor utilized in approval decisions. A more recent analysis of 47 pesticides similarly found that only a small minority of pesticides that are present in food had any safety buffer incorporated for children.

The lack of adequate protections can hit certain communities particularly hard. For instance, over 50% of migrant children in the U.S. have an unmet health need compared to just over 2% of all children living in the U.S. Compounding stressors can significantly increase the sensitivity of children to pesticides and other pollutants. Without added protections, children of color and those in low-income households are more likely to remain unprotected.

2. Loopholes perpetuate harm abroad

Under federal law, private companies are expressly allowed to manufacture and export pesticides that aren’t allowed to be used in the United States, including pesticides that the U.S. has banned due to human health concerns. These exports are common and can include some of the most toxic pesticides ever produced. Incidentally, this can lead to what’s called the “circle of poison,” where pesticides that are banned in the U.S. get exported to other countries where they are used on food crops that are subsequently imported back into the U.S. containing traces of the banned substances.

Our study found that between 2015 and 2019, unapproved pesticides containing neurotoxic organophosphates and carbamates that are not allowed for use in the United States were exported to 42 different nations. Of those, 81% were considered low-middle-income countries (LMICs), and 78% were estimated to have more than 30% of their agricultural workforce poisoned by pesticides each year. By allowing this practice, the United States is perpetuating the cycle of rich countries profiting from the misfortune of developing countries and further allowing U.S. communities that live near these manufacturing plants to be exposed to chemicals our country has deemed too dangerous for use.

3. Regulatory capture is a significant barrier to change

Regulatory capture happens when special interest groups, in this case the pesticide industry and groups that advocate for chemical-intensive farming, corrosively influence a regulatory agency to such an extent that policy making within the agency serves the special interests of stakeholders instead of the public at large. A prominent example of this is the pesticide office at the EPA. A captured environmental agency often works at odds with principles of scientific integrity and environmental justice because the leadership at the agency tends to devalue those principles in favor of decisions that are amenable to the very industry they regulate. In our experience, regulatory capture often manifests in the agency’s overall decisions that are driven by managers and administrators as opposed to individual scientists at the agency.

One pressure point is the all-too-common “revolving door,” whereby the future prospect of a high paying job in industry tends to reward those at the regulatory agency who prioritize industry interests. Since the pesticide office was formed in the 1970s, every single one of the department heads who continued to work after leaving the pesticide office at the EPA ended up profiting from the very companies they used to oversee.

The solution

While unwanted exposure to pesticides is largely unavoidable for most Americans, the extent of one’s exposures often tracks with their race/ethnicity and income level. Given that higher exposures are more likely to be associated with disease and premature death, it would be a moral failing to allow this to perpetuate without policy actions to mitigate these exposures.

Though solutions to this problem face strong headwinds in our current political climate, the best approach would be to broadly implement the “precautionary principle” in United States regulation. The precautionary principle requires a simple shift in the perspective of the government regulators when they consider allowing a polluting activity—asking “How little harm is possible” rather than “How much harm is allowable?” Such a system requires a much higher science-based burden of proof that a chemical is safe, empowers regulators to proactively prevent a harmful activity in the face of uncertainty around safety, and allows for meaningful exploration of safer alternatives. Sadly, the mere mention of the precautionary principle is often met with derision from many who work in the U.S. government and is even more reviled by the powerful polluting industries whose bottom line it would impact. However, adopting such a system is the only way that chemical regulation will ever effectively protect the public in an equitable way.

While fighting for a precautionary principle-based approach will take time, meaningful progress in reducing the disproportionate risks from pesticides is not only possible but relatively simple. Below we outline eight steps the EPA can take right now—without any action from Congress—to reduce the harm pesticides inflict on communities of color across the United States and beyond.

1. Eliminate or reduce the pesticide safety double standard

When it comes to U.S. pesticide laws, all people are not created equal.

Consistent with the “agricultural exceptionalism” that excepted agricultural workers from laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, agricultural workers were excluded from protections signed into law with the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA). The FQPA implemented a stronger health-based standard for people exposed to pesticides mainly through food and water but specifically exempted occupational exposures. This established a double standard, whereby protections put in place for the “general population” were not extended to the people who do the vital work of keeping food on our plates.

Seemingly aware of this double standard, the EPA put plans in motion to address it during the Obama administration with the publication of a draft guidance document that more closely aligned the risk assessment process for occupational and nonoccupational harm. Stating that, “No scientific justification exists for distinguishing between otherwise identical exposures based on whether they occurred on-the-job or not,” this draft document was intended to guide the agency in how it could use its authority under other laws to extend some of FQPA’s protections to occupational workers. Specifically citing environmental justice concerns, the EPA’s draft guidance document would, among other things, guide the EPA to assess the totality of pesticide exposure to farmworkers and their families from diet, home, and occupational sources in the aggregate instead of assessing occupational and non-occupational exposures individually.  Unfortunately, the effort was ultimately shelved following opposition from the American Chemistry Council and the pesticide industry. It remains in draft form today.

Without the need for any amendment to existing federal law, the EPA could partially rectify this double standard by finalizing the draft guidance document and implementing it in pesticide review decisions. The work is already done and the benefits to farmworkers and their families would be significant.

2. Implement practices to better monitor and address real-world harms to impacted communities

One critical part of assessing whether a pesticide approval was done in error and resulted in harm to people is through post-approval monitoring and follow-up. However, the EPA’s failure to adequately implement such procedures has played a significant role in allowing the environmental injustices associated with U.S. pesticide use to fester.

For example, agricultural injuries and illnesses are estimated to be undercounted by 62% to 95%—more than in any other industry. Pesticide injuries to farmworkers are known to be vastly underreported due to underutilization of medical care, which itself stems from a lack of health insurance, time off, transportation access, immigration status, inadequate language access, and fear of retaliation or further oppression. By underestimating these injuries, the EPA disproportionately undercounts harm to people of color, the vast majority of workers in this industry.

Poison control center utilization, which is the predominant way nonoccupational harm from pesticides is reported, is known to be much lower in low-income communities that are predominantly people of color.

The federal government can reduce the barriers impacted communities face when reporting pesticide harms by, among other things, requiring clinicians to be educated on how to diagnose and report pesticide poisonings; mandating federally funded facilities that use pesticides to report incidents; and promoting anonymous reporting from those who might fear retaliation.

In addition, the EPA tends to ignore epidemiology studies done on human populations in favor of toxicology studies done on animals when it approves or reapproves a pesticide. However, many epidemiology studies are specifically designed to follow the most at-risk communities—information that animal studies do not provide. The EPA can update current guidance to be more inclusive of epidemiology in its pesticide registration decisions.

3. Strengthen worker protections

Despite OSHA overseeing chemical exposure monitoring for many industries, the EPA does not require biological monitoring of farmworkers exposed to pesticides known to cause harm. Biological monitoring, which requires blood or urine testing from workers to ensure that exposures remain below harmful levels, is already in place for some pesticides under state programs in California and Washington. These biological monitoring programs have found that physiological effects from pesticides can happen even when pesticides are applied lawfully and when the worker does not experience any symptoms. A national requirement for biological monitoring of pesticides known to cause worker harm could be modeled after these state programs and reduce preventable harm to workers regardless of what state they work in.

The EPA has recently strengthened worker protections by committing to requiring bilingual pesticide labels and updating Worker Protection Standard (WPS) rules. These are significant actions that, for decades, farmworkers have been fighting for. However, lack of enforcement continues to undercut the effectiveness of safeguards already on the books. Only 1% of agricultural operations are inspected for violations of safety standards each year, and of those, nearly half are found in violation. Most are for highly consequential violations like failure to provide pesticide safety training, failure to inform workers about pesticide use, and failure to provide protective equipment. Only 19% of violations led to any action other than a warning. Without adequate enforcement of existing safeguards, there is no incentive for exploitative employers to play by the rules.

4. Reduce harms from unintended pesticide use

Many pesticides are so toxic that they necessitate dozens of  pages of use directions and restrictions just to meet the approval standards in U.S. pesticide law (some examples here, here and here). While following the instructions on pesticide labels does not necessarily protect pesticide users against all harms, it does help to reduce risks.

However, label directions can be so complex that, in extreme cases, courts have reversed pesticide approvals due to labels that were too difficult to follow. Pesticide users often fail to follow label instructions on how to properly use pesticides. There are many reasons for this, including lack of training on proper pesticide use, illiteracy or language differences, lack of access to proper protective equipment, and lack of employer support for safety protocols. Regardless of the reasons, there is a significant disconnect between how regulators believe pesticides are used and how they are actually used in the real world.

The unintended consequences of this “off-label” use can be severe. A striking example occurred in 2005 when three mothers who were concurrently pregnant gave birth to children with severe congenital disorders. The three women were later found to have worked throughout their pregnancies at the same farm where pesticide label requirements were routinely violated.

Pesticide regulation should account for on-the-ground realities, not theoretical scenarios where everything is done by-the-books in an ideal setting. The practicality of a wide range of users following complex label directions must be accounted for in pesticide approval decisions. And the EPA must also begin to analyze how bystanders are affected by the direct inhalation of pesticides—a scenario the EPA has historically ignored based on the unverified assumption that pesticide labels prevent such exposures.

5. Adequately protect those most vulnerable to pesticide harm—children

While the FQPA required that the EPA incorporate safety protections for children in its pesticide approval decisions, the EPA has rarely put these protections into practice. The reason for the disconnect is the plain language of the law itself, which gives the EPA the ability to reduce or eliminate the child protections “…on the basis of reliable data.” The “reliable data” that the EPA often uses to justify eliminating these protections are a few studies funded by the pesticide industry—often conducted in a single laboratory—that find the protections aren’t warranted. However, this would meet very few scientists’ definition of “reliable data.” Furthermore, in the few instances where these protections are implemented, they are specifically targeted for removal by pesticide industry consortiums whose sole existence is to provide the “reliable data” to justify eliminating the protections.

While current practice is for the EPA to treat this commonsense protection as a discretionary action that is easy to dismiss, it is a tool that is available to the agency that has been endorsed by Congress. “Reliable data” should come from multiple different labs without financial conflicts of interest coming to the same conclusion, and when that happens children are routinely found to be much more susceptible to pesticide poisonings than adults. Yet eliminating this protection is the rule, not the exception. One intent of the FQPA was to protect the next generation from being harmed by excessive chemical exposure. The best way for the EPA to honor that intent is to actually utilize this tool to protect the children in environmental justice communities that are shouldering a disproportionate burden of our societal pesticide harm.

6. Codify prior informed consent for the export of unregistered pesticides

Multiple legislative attempts to end the exportation of harmful pesticides that the U.S. has banned to developing countries have failed due to opposition by chemical manufacturers.

Until an act of Congress ends this regressive practice, the EPA can alleviate some of this suffering. The agency can and should implement the principle of “prior informed consent” when exporting unregistered pesticides, and a rulemaking petition outlining the justification and authority for such a move has been submitted to the agency by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for International Environmental Law. This would require that the national government of the importing country be informed of the health risks associated with U.S.-banned pesticides and have the option to decline the import, thus empowering countries with fewer resources to make informed decisions about if, or when, to allow highly hazardous pesticides within their borders.

7. Protect communities near agrochemical production and storage facilities

Low-income communities and communities of color are much more likely to live in close proximity to chemical manufacturing and storage and waste facilities in the United States, and this is because those communities are actively targeted for the siting of polluting manufacturing facilities. In looking at pesticide production facilities specifically, we found that the most polluting pesticide manufacturing facilities are located predominantly in low-income communities, and some regions, like California and the U.S. South, are much more likely to be in neighborhoods of color. As a result, these communities face increased exposure to the known human health toxicants released from these facilities and increased risks from explosions and chemical disasters that are becoming more common throughout the country.

Under the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) program, the EPA can set more stringent standards for emissions of harmful air pollutants from these facilities and require more robust monitoring. Similarly, the EPA can also implement a stronger hazardous substance spill-prevention regulation and worst-case discharge planning regulation under the Clean Water Act for manufacturing and storage sites that house pesticides that can impair water quality.

The EPA has recently proposed a rule to amend its Risk Management Program (RMP) regulations, which are currently not strong enough to sufficiently protect on-the-ground communities from chemical facility disasters, including pesticide manufacturing or distribution facilities. Extensive comments from affected communities have rightly called on the EPA to explicitly require the use of safer technologies at these facilities, third-party safety audits, greater accountability, greater emergency preparedness, and more robust procedures for accounting of cumulative health impacts.

8. Assess and rectify regulatory capture by industry within the EPA Pesticide Office

While the pressures placed on the pesticide office to serve the interests of the industry are well entrenched and difficult to eliminate entirely, identifying the pressure points and erecting barriers to reduce undue influence can have an enormous public health benefit.

A third-party audit should be conducted by a group such as the National Research Council or Government Accountability Office to study the extent to which the EPA’s operating procedures and management practices allow for undue industry influence. This report could further provide recommendations on how to effectively separate the regulators at this office from the regulated industry and further connect the agency to the people and communities it is supposed to protect. This would protect environmental justice communities, and by extension, the broader public.


While our society’s awareness and acknowledgment of environmental injustices has increased significantly in the decades since the movement began, solutions are still notably absent in most settings. The barriers to change in this context are long-entrenched and difficult to overcome, but as our country slowly addresses these larger societal challenges, meaningful progress that could provide immediate benefits to people on the ground is still possible and necessary.

In this report, we’ve provided an outline of what incremental environmental justice progress could look like. Out of all the harmful pollutants that disproportionately impact low-income communities and people of color in the United States, we’ve chosen pesticides as our focus due to the small number of statutes that govern their use and the long overdue need for positive change in their regulation by the EPA.

The entire lifecycle of pesticides, from their production to their end use, often disproportionately harm people of color and low-income communities throughout the United States. Race, nationality, income level, and educational attainment can all influence where a person lives, what they eat, and their occupation. These are also major variables in determining levels of exposure to pesticides. While it can be overwhelming to ponder how to fix a problem that is so deeply rooted and intertwined with various other systemic problems, progress in this area need not be overly difficult. We’ve identified eight steps that the EPA can take right now to make incremental, but meaningful, progress in reducing the pesticide burden faced by affected communities.

Incremental progress is, by its very nature, insufficient. But it’s important to make short-term gains as we’re working toward long-term change. There is a true solution to this problem that is likely unobtainable in the short term: Adopting a true precautionary principle in U.S. chemical regulation. The recommendations we’ve provided here are no substitute for true solutions and are not intended to “fix” this enormous problem. What these recommendations can do is provide some relief for heavily impacted communities while the United States continues to reckon with its past and meet the moment on one of the defining issues of this generation.


  • Footnotes
    1. Bullard, Robert D. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. 3rd ed. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 2000.
    2. Historically, the CDC had only collected chemical exposure data on three demographic groups: Mexican American, non-Hispanic white, and non-Hispanic Black populations. It has since added other groups to its sampling, but since our analysis looked at current and historical exposure we were limited to only analyzing data for these three groups.
    3. Bullard, Robert D., J. Eugene Grigsby, Charles Lee, and Joe R. Feagin, eds. Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy. CAAS Urban Policy Series, v. 2. Los Angeles, CA: CAAS Publications, 1994.; Bullard, Robert D., ed. Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007.; Bullard, Robert D., ed. The Black Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century: Race, Power, and Politics of Place. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
    4. Weir, David, and Mark Schapiro. Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World. San Francisco, CA: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1981.