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Sugarcane fields in South Florida are burned annually to help crops grow, but the resulting ash, known as “black snow,” has led to respiratory illnesses and even deaths among nearby residents. A recent study by Florida State University found that between one and six people die each year due to the health complications caused by the burns. The Stop the Burn movement, which includes Black and Latino communities living in poverty, hopes to bring national attention to the issue and encourage sugar companies and farmers to consider alternatives to burning. Efforts to stop the practice of sugarcane burning have been ongoing for years.
As per the analysis by a recent report by NBC News, planned burns carried out in thousands of acres of sugarcane fields in South Florida are causing health complications for residents living in the surrounding areas. The ash from these burns, known as “black snow,” covers homes, cars, and vegetation, causing respiratory illnesses such as asthma and lung cancer.
Residents living around the south shore of Lake Okeechobee, which includes predominantly Black and Latino communities, have been complaining about the ash for decades. Despite sugar companies and farmers insisting that the burnings are tightly regulated by the state, residents say they stay in their homes with their windows shut to avoid exposure to the ash.
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In an effort to bring national attention to their cause, members of Florida’s Stop the Burn movement have joined forces with a similar campaign in Louisiana. The movement hopes to push sugar companies and farmers to consider alternatives to burning sugarcane fields.
Efforts to stop the practice of sugarcane burning have been ongoing for years. The Sierra Club, an environmental group that has organized the Stop the Burn campaign, reports that Black and Latino residents in western Palm Beach County are more likely to interact with the fallout of the burns.
Kina Phillips, who joined the Stop the Burn campaign seven years ago, noticed the impact the sugarcane burning was having on the community’s health while working as a patient outreach coordinator for a doctor. “We had to put more people on breathing machines and write scripts for asthma medication during the burning,” she said. “We had to call ambulances when they could hardly breathe.”
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A review of eight years of hospital data in 2021 by the investigative organization ProPublica and the Palm Beach Post newspaper showed a spike in hospital and emergency room visits for residents of Belle Glade, the largest city near the sugarcane fields. The report found that residents were more likely to be hospitalized for respiratory illnesses during the sugarcane burn season.
Ahead of the current preharvest burn season, researchers from Florida State University published a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives stating that between one and six people die each year due to health complications brought on by the crop burns. The study also cited previous work showing that the burns are known to cause respiratory illnesses such as asthma and lung cancer.
The Stop the Burn movement hopes that the study, along with their collaboration with the Louisiana campaign, will bring national attention to their cause and push for change. Alternatives to burning sugarcane fields include green harvesting, which involves cutting the sugarcane without burning it, and using mechanical harvesters.
Bringing everything together, the planned burns carried out in South Florida’s sugarcane fields are causing health complications for residents living in the surrounding areas. Despite efforts to regulate the burns, residents continue to experience respiratory illnesses such as asthma and lung cancer. The Stop the Burn movement hopes to bring national attention to their cause and push for alternatives to burning sugarcane fields.