Use of Toxic Chemicals Endangering Safety, Reproductive Health of Immigrants in Detention

September 20, 2021

Newly obtained records reveal officials at Florida immigration detention center used industrial-strength chemical at 64 times strength allowed by EPA

Jeff Migliozzi, Freedom for Immigrants, [email protected]
Devra Gelman, Americans for Immigrant Justice, [email protected]

GLADES COUNTY, Fla. – A disturbing investigative report published in Scientific American reveals that officials at a federal immigration detention center in Glades County, Florida, routinely use toxic chemicals at highly dangerous levels, exposing immigrants held at the facility to severe health effects including damage to reproductive health.

The months-long investigation concludes immigrants held at the Glades County Detention Center (GCDC) are exposed to toxic, industrial-grade disinfectant chemicals containing quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs). Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) regular use of the chemicals in crowded, unventilated spaces exposes immigrants to QACs at dangerous levels.

Internal emails reveal that Glades staff were not diluting a QAC-containing chemical to the highly reduced levels specified by its manufacturer’s EPA-regulated guidelines. A Glades County official wrote to others at the Glades County Sheriff’s Office that the disinfectant was so thick that it was “clogging up the…sprayer.” He then directed officials to continue showering the chemical spray from the sprayers at roughly 64 times the recommended strength.

People detained at GCDC have long reported the adverse health effects of the chemicals, and Freedom for Immigrants (FFI), along with other organizations in the Shut Down Glades Coalition, filed two complaints to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in February and August of this year, detailing the harmful effects of the chemicals.

Advocates and medical experts across the country warn the reckless use of chemical disinfectants—which have been reported in at least 22 detention facilities across the country—has created a public health emergency and perpetrated a disturbing history of medical and reproductive health abuses in the U.S. immigration detention system.

“Industrial-strength cleaning and disinfectant products containing QACs have been implicated in causing a range of adverse health effects,” said Lorena Del Pilar Bonilla, M.D., of Doctors For Camp Closure Florida Chapter. “The immediate harm is painful, burning, and blistering skin rashes; swollen and painful burning eyes, nose, and throat. People in detention that are exposed to these industrial chemicals can suffer from higher rates of chronic respiratory conditions. These effects in their bodies can also increase their likelihood of being infected with viral respiratory infections like the one that causes COVID-19. Furthermore, they are not in well-ventilated spaces and they are not given personal protective equipment as the safety data sheets recommend. This is extremely inhumane and alarming that inappropriate use of these disinfectants are being used with disregard for people’s health and safety.”

“Sometimes, when I’m asleep at night, they’ve sprayed,” said Jean Cleophat, a Haitian man who suffers from asthma. “I’ll be waking up sweating. I can’t breathe. I feel dizzy.”

“Last night, they were spraying a chemical, and it’s not fair,” said one woman in the August complaint who chose to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. “Yesterday, we were coughing a lot because we couldn’t take the vapor and smell of the chemical.”

“People in Glades and across the immigration detention system are subject to human rights abuses, including unconscionable abuses of their reproductive freedom,” said Sofia Casini, director of visitation advocacy strategies at Freedom for Immigrants. “No matter how we came to this country, we are all deserving of safety, health care and reproductive justice. But immigration detention is inherently abusive, and this system deprives people of these fundamental rights.”

“The use of this toxic chemical spray is sadly another example of how the health and well-being of detained immigrants is not prioritized at Glades,” said Jessica Schneider, director of the Detention Program at Americans for Immigrant Justice. “For years clients have reported living in squalid conditions and receiving inadequate medical care at Glades. As these dangerous conditions continue, what’s needed immediately is for ICE to stop transfers into Glades and release all individuals, starting with those most medically vulnerable to COVID-19.”

“People inside have been courageously raising the alarm about this toxic chemical since Glades started spraying it in spring 2020,” said Wendy King, executive director of Immigrant Action Alliance. “Yet Glades has callously ignored them and continued endangering their health every day. The only solution is to close this dangerous and abusive facility.”

Immigrants detained at GCDC, communities and advocates continue to call for everyone to be released and for the facility to be permanently closed as conditions continue to deteriorate. A mass hunger strike organized by roughly 100 immigrants, including many Haitian men, began last week. And in July, eight members of Congress joined the call for closure, urging DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to immediately close the facility.