Black snow, referred to as ash, falls and blankets homes in certain parts of Southern Florida between October and May each year. This occurs due to planned burns carried out in extensive sugar cane fields to benefit the crops.
Residents living around the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, which includes predominantly Black and Latino communities with many living in poverty, have been voicing complaints about the ash for decades. While nearby sugar companies and farmers claim that the burnings are tightly regulated by the state, some residents choose to stay indoors with closed windows to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses.
In anticipation of the current preharvest burn season, researchers from Florida State University published a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The study states that between one and six people die each year due to health complications arising from the crop burns. The researchers also cite previous research indicating that the burns are known to cause asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory illnesses. Members of Florida’s Stop the Burn movement, in collaboration with a similar campaign in Louisiana, hope that the study will draw national attention to their ongoing struggle and compel sugar companies and farmers to explore alternatives to burning.
Efforts to halt the practice of sugar cane burning are underway. The Sierra Club, an environmental group leading the Stop the Burn campaign, highlights that Black and Latino residents in western Palm Beach County, who are surrounded by the majority of sugarcane acreage in Florida, are more likely to be affected by the consequences of the burns.
Kina Phillips, who joined the Stop the Burn campaign seven years ago, witnessed the impact of sugar cane burning on the community’s health while working as a patient outreach coordinator for a doctor. She noticed an increase in breathing difficulties and the need for asthma medication during the burning season. In severe cases, they had to call for ambulances when people struggled to breathe.
An analysis of eight years of hospital data conducted in 2021 by ProPublica and the Palm Beach Post revealed a rise in hospital and emergency room visits by residents of Belle Glade, the largest city in the burn area, during the burning season.
R.D. Williams, CEO of the Hendry Regional Medical Center in Clewiston, Florida, noted that the center’s records showed minimal fluctuations in respiratory complaints month to month, except for some variability during the flu season, which aligns with the harvest season.