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'There’s no safe level': Glades sugarcane burns continue despite link to tenfold mortality increase

Before sugar cane is harvested, farmers set fire to it to burn away the leaves.
Dan Charles
/
NPR
Before sugar cane is harvested, farmers set fire to it to burn away the leaves.

A Florida scientist has warned that sugarcane burns in Palm Beach County contribute to up to six deaths per year — and that there is "no safe level" of exposure to toxic particles from the contentious practice.

The pre-harvest burning season in the western part of the county occurs from October through April, with farmers setting fire to nearly 400,000 acres of sugarcane fields to strip the plant down to the stalk, which make it easier to harvest.

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People living and working in Glades region — Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay and Clewiston — have long raised alarm about how the smoke and ash plumes falling from the skies contributes to their poor health and air quality.

But this season's burns came as a peer-reviewed Florida State University study underlined the deadly risks associated with the practice, which has already been phased out by sugar producing countries such as Brazil.

The evidence, first published before the start of the season, shows that a handful of people in that rural region die each year from the various toxins emitted from the smoke or what low-income families call “the Black snow,”

Christopher Holmes is the lead author of the study, which was supported by the NASA Atmospheric Composition Modeling and Analysis Program.

It shows “mortality rates from this exposure [are] almost 10 times higher for residents living next to the fields as opposed to outside of the immediate area," adding that the quantities are "comparable to motor vehicles" and are "a factor in mortality rates across the region.”

"Most likely there’s between one and six people who die from the fine particulate matter produced by sugarcane fires and that’s each year."
Associate Professor Christopher Holmes

Holmes, an associate professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric science, told WLRN his team's study quantifies the way in which particulate matter — the harmful particles emitted by sugarcane burning — is linked to asthma, lung cancer and heart disease.

“There’s a link between the concentrations of fine particulate matter and those health outcomes and we wanted to look at what that would mean for the South Florida area,” Holmes said. “Most likely there’s between one and six people who die from the fine particulate matter produced by sugarcane fires and that’s each year.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, under the Clean Air Act established in the early 1970s, regulates how much of those harmful particles can be in the air during the burning season. Holmes’ research shows there are negative health impacts at concentrations that are even lower than the EPA’s standards.

“Most of all South Florida is quite good compared to national and certainly international standards but we still expect there to be some health impacts,” Holmes said. “There’s no safe level of exposure to fine particles.”

The issue is worrisome, said Holmes, but the air quality measurements and results comply with the EPA’s air quality guidelines as do the particle pollution threshold, which attempts to capture air pollution through 24-hour and annual averages.

That’s not all this region has to contend with. According to the U.S. Census, the Glades region is predominantly low-income Black and Hispanic communities, with up to 40% living in poverty. And large sugar companies, such as U.S Sugar and Florida Crystal, are the largest employers in the region and are big political donors.

In 2020, Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar's spokesperson, told WLRN that “they are well within these standards for good air quality.” In 2021, the Florida legislature expanded the existing Right to Farm Act, adding "particle emissions" to the list of farming practices protected from lawsuits.

'Shortcomings' and a federal lawsuit

Earlier this year, residents in the Glades area dropped a federal lawsuit against sugar farmers. The plaintiffs, who lived in Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay, Canal Point, Indiantown, Clewiston and Moore Haven were seeking class action status. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs did not return WLRN's request for comment.

A Palm Beach Post and ProPublica report last year showed a “series of shortcomings” in how local and state authorities monitor the air in the Glades region.

They cited the use of a single malfunctioning monitor “to track air quality across the 400,000-acre sugar-growing region for at least eight years” which was “unfit to determine whether the air met standards set under the Clean Air Act.” Researchers say officials fail to capture short-term spikes in air pollution from the burns.

Holmes says the FSU’s research, in conjunction with Washington State University and University of Sheffield in England, examined and combined their measurements with multiple studies, demographic and health impact data and isn’t advocating for any particular solutions.

“So as science has advanced, the Environmental Protection Agency has lowered what they consider to be the acceptable amount of fine particles in ambient air,” Holmes said. He said the EPA is currently considering revising those standards and reviewing what they should be.

“I think we can expect that if the science continues to progress in the way that it has for the last 15 or ten years,” said Holmes. "At some point, the EPA will determine that the acceptable concentrations should be lower than than the current standards allow.”

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.