Prison company violated federal pesticide law in misuse of disinfectant inside immigration detention center
The private prison company that operates an immigration detention facility northeast of Los Angeles violated federal law by misusing a chemical disinfectant spray that caused detainees to experience nosebleeds, burning eyes, nausea and headaches, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report.
The EPA issued the report and a warning notice Monday to GEO Group, a Florida-based company that runs the nearly 2,000-bed Adelanto ICE Processing Facility and more than a dozen other detention centers on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The EPA’s investigation found that staff and detainees were instructed to apply HDQ Neutral, a pesticide, inside the facility as often as every 30 minutes, without proper ventilation and at a dilution rate of 2 ounces per gallon of water — double the concentration allowed for disinfectant use.
ICE declined to comment. GEO Group spokesman Christopher Ferreira said HDQ Neutral was always used at the Adelanto facility in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines. He said a different product is now being used there.
Raul Garcia, legislative director at the nonprofit Earthjustice, called the warning a good first step but said he wished that GEO Group would face harsher penalties for the alleged violations — the extent of which aren’t clear.
“We don’t know what the actual damage is to people detained at Adelanto,” he said. “This is a huge justice problem. This chemical has been used at Adelanto for nearly a decade. We could be looking at hundreds of thousands of specific violations of law.”
EPA representatives conducted a virtual inspection of the Adelanto facility in July in response to complaints. Detainees started voicing concerns about the chemical shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began.
EPA representatives found that detainees were not required to wear gloves, masks or safety goggles while handling the disinfectant, though the product label requires use of goggles and chemical-resistant gloves. Staffers were required to wear gloves and masks but not goggles.
Warden James Janecka said staff were given nitrile gloves, masks and safety goggles while detainees were given surgical masks and gloves, and had access to goggles that were kept inside a closet.
Janecka said the disinfectant was applied about every hour in administrative areas and as often as every 30 minutes in housing units and living areas. He said HDQ Neutral had been used for nine years at the facility, but that the frequency of applications increased in response to the pandemic.
The product label says HDQ Neutral can cause irreversible eye damage and skin burns, and that it should only be used in well-ventilated areas.
“It is not clear how well detainees can avoid exposure to their respiratory system if they happen not to be wearing a facemask during nearby applications by staff or detainees,” EPA inspectors wrote. “It is not clear whether or not Adelanto has sufficient ventilation to handle such frequent spraying of HDQ Neutral.”
Janecka declined to say whether detainees reported adverse health effects after the application of the disinfectant. He said there had been no reports of adverse health effects from staff.
The warden said facility staff would skip spraying an area if a detainee was sitting nearby or on the floor below. But detainees reported to EPA officials seeing the spray fall onto their food, inhaling it, feeling it land on their skin and getting into their eyes. They reported frequently touching phones or tables still wet with the disinfectant. They described symptoms including sour taste, itchy throat, difficulty breathing, lung pain, itchy skin, red, irritated eyes and rashes.
Janecka said the spray bottles used by detainees had labels attached, but current and former detainees told EPA officials that the bottles didn’t always have a label and they were not given any instructions on how to safely apply the product.
Detainees told EPA officials they witnessed people mixing HDQ Neutral with other chemicals and spraying inside microwaves without being wiped away afterward. The product isn’t meant for use on food contact surfaces.
Amy Miller-Bowen, director of the enforcement and compliance assurance division of the EPA, wrote in a warning notice to GEO Group CEO George Zoley that his company had used HDQ Neutral in a manner inconsistent with its labeling, in violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. Failure to comply could result in further enforcement action, Miller-Bowen said.
In May, advocates for immigrants filed a legal complaint alleging that the Adelanto staff purposefully exposed detainees to the spray as a form of retaliation for speaking out about dangerous living conditions during the pandemic.
Democratic Reps. Mark Takano of Riverside and Juan Vargas of San Diego sent a letter to then-acting ICE Director Matthew Albence, calling the reports troubling and pointing to the HDQ Neutral manufacturer warning about the chemical’s use indoors.
In September, a federal judge ordered GEO Group to immediately discontinue use of the chemical at the Adelanto facility after lawyers for detainees raised concerns that coughing and sneezing caused by exposure to HDQ Neutral could increase their risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Lawyers for the federal government argued that the chemical is an EPA-registered disinfectant that fights COVID-19 and that the court “should ignore the petitioner’s misleading scaremongering.”
“After receiving what appear to be valid complaints from detainees regarding the toxicity and noxiousness of HDQ Neutral, the Government and its contractor, the GEO Group, did absolutely nothing other than to continue the use of HDQ Neutral,” U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter wrote in his decision. “It is clear to the Court that the use of HDQ Neutral in Adelanto’s housing units was with a callous disregard for the safety of Adelanto’s detainees and in violation of the detainees’ constitutional right to reasonable safety.”
Advocates said the environmental violations at the Adelanto facility don’t represent an isolated case. The group Friends of Miami Dade Detainees filed a complaint in May with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties regarding similar use of a different chemical disinfectant at the Glades County Detention Center in Florida. More recently, the Biden administration has looked to reopen a facility for migrant children that sits on land polluted by toxic military waste.
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