ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.
This article was produced in partnership with The Palm Beach Post, which was a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
Florida Democrats running to represent the state’s largest sugar-growing region in Congress say that state officials need to examine whether the industry’s harvesting practices are harming the health of residents in Florida’s heartland. The primary election, which will be held Tuesday, will likely decide the ultimate winner, given the heavily Democratic district.
The calls came in response to an investigation by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica that found the Florida Department of Health ignored the recommendations of its own researchers to do such an assessment five years ago, despite mounting complaints from residents and multiple studies linking a practice known as cane burning to toxic pollution. Sugar companies are the largest employers in the region.
For about six months each year, from October through the following March, farmers burn sugar crops to rid the plants of their outer leaves, sending smoke and ash into the patchwork of largely Black and Hispanic communities known as the Glades. The companies say the practice is safe and heavily regulated by state agricultural and environmental officials. But, as the news organizations reported in August, state health researchers told their bosses in 2016 that the issue was ripe for more study, after finding significant levels of toxic pollutants known to cause cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory illness.
Seven of the 11 Democrats vying to replace the late Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat who died in April, said the Florida health department should now follow through with a health-risk assessment, a tool that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments use to pinpoint toxins in the environment and protect vulnerable communities.
“The only reason we don’t know more about how sugar cane burning affects the health of Glades residents is because of the willful ignorance of public health officials in Florida’s health department,” said state Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat from West Palm Beach who is running in the special election for the vacant seat in the 20th Congressional District.
As The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica reported, local and state health officials have assessed the health risks of other pollutants …….