It’s no secret that Big Sugar has long polluted our air and our water. Now groundbreaking new research has confirmed the human toll of the industry’s pollution.

An independent study by Dr. Michée Lachaud — an agricultural, environmental and resource economist associated with Florida A&M University — has linked pre-harvest sugarcane burning to a 10.8% increase in physician-diagnosed asthmas cases.

A new study has established a statistically significant link between sugarcane burning and increased asthma incidence rates among low-income Florida communities, which are predominantly Black.

Conducted for Friends of the Everglades by Dr. Michée Lachaud—an agricultural, environmental, and resource economist associated with Florida A&M University in Tallahassee—the study draws its conclusions by analyzing data on physician-diagnosed asthma cases alongside environmental factors and fine particulate matter pollution known as PM2.5 emissions from various sources, including sugarcane burning. Dr. Lachaud conducted this study as an independent consultant and is preparing to submit for publication to a top, peer-reviewed journal in the field of environmental economics.

Said Dr. Lachaud: “I began this project with a single goal: examine the potential impact of cane burning on asthma incidence rates in South Florida. Specifically, I aimed to investigate whether there exists a statistically significant relationship between PM2.5 emissions from cane burning and the number of physician-diagnosed asthma cases in the state. The findings are clear: there is a positive relationship, and it is statistically significant.”

“While these results are consistent with other previous studies, this newfound evidence raises pressing questions and inquiries for policymakers to answer. I am grateful to the many researchers whose work underpins my report, and I eagerly anticipate further contributions in this area, crucial for the welfare of South Florida’s residents and its environment.”

Isolating the Impact of Sugarcane Burning
The study’s findings by Dr. Lachaud illuminate the public health threat posed by the annual pre-harvest burning of about 400,000 acres of sugarcane south of Lake Okeechobee. Most of this acreage is farmed by two large corporations, U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals. After meticulously controlling for a range of factors, the research revealed a significant independent association between sugarcane burning and asthma diagnoses. Notably, a 10 microgram per cubic meter of air (μg/m³, a common measure of air pollution) increase in total quarterly PM2.5 emissions from sugarcane fires was associated with a 10.8% increase in new asthma diagnoses across the study population. This translates to a substantial public health burden, particularly in areas heavily impacted by sugarcane burning.

Seasonality and Vulnerability
The research also identified a distinct seasonal pattern. Asthma cases spiked during the sugarcane burning season (October-March) compared to non-burning months. This finding suggests a direct statistical relationship between exposure to burning emissions and the onset of new asthma cases.

“These results raise particular concern for children under 13,” says Dr. Lachaud. “Our study suggests they are the most susceptible age group, highlighting the urgent need for preventative measures. These findings are also consistent with those found in previous studies that identify children under 13 as the most vulnerable age group.”

Public Health Concerns and a Call to Action
The study’s preliminary findings have raised major public health questions and galvanized calls to action from environmental advocacy groups and concerned stakeholders. “Dr. Lachaud’s independent, painstaking work reveals the human toll of pollution caused by industrial sugarcane growers,” said Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades. “The state of Florida has failed for decades to crack down on Big Sugar’s pollution — and this is a galvanizing moment when that must change.”

Andrew Sullivan of the No Big Sugar campaign, a consortium of businesses and environmental organizations, reinforced that urgency: “It’s been the worst-kept secret in Florida politics that sugarcane burning is bad for people’s health. Dr. Lachaud has swept away the ambiguity. Kids are being harmed. Elders are being harmed. The time has come for change.”

Moving Forward: Collaboration and Innovation
The potential impact of this research necessitates a proactive approach. While PM2.5 concentrations have been decreasing over time as shown in the data and results, the study suggests even current levels pose a risk. Policymakers, the sugarcane industry, and local communities must work together, as Dr. Lachaud suggests, to find alternatives to pre-harvest burning.

Further Research and a Sustainable Future
Dr. Lachaud plans to build upon the work in this report with further research by investigating a wider range of respiratory illnesses, including a request for funding from state and federal agencies to train and distribute 3D-printed air quality sensors in the affected communities to empower them with the capacity to monitor their own air quality, verify model outputs, and share these data within their network by integrating them into developed dashboard displays.

Summary of Key Findings

  • The stark impact of cane burning on children. Between 2014-2018, there were 291,698 physician-diagnosed asthma cases in the 20 South Florida counties studied according to data form the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. Children under 13 were the most affected, making up 40.6% of observed cases in our sample. The results show that they are the most affected age group. 

  • Isolating the statistical relationship between cane burning and asthma incidence rates in South Florida for the very first time. After controlling for weather, seasonality, and other factors, a 10 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) increase in total quarterly PM2.5 from sugarcane burning was associated with a 10.8% increase in physician-diagnosed asthma emergency department visits and hospitalizations.

  • Burn season increases. Asthma rates were significantly higher during the sugarcane burning season (Oct-March) compared to the non-burning season and these results are robust across various statistical model specifications. Even at current PM2.5 levels, more new asthma cases are projected to occur in Florida if practices continue unchanged.

  • Low-income communities are most affected. The most affected areas are the low-income, predominantly African-American communities around the Everglades Agricultural Area where most sugarcane is grown. This raises environmental justice concerns.

  • The time has come to transition to a green harvest. Transitioning away from pre-harvest burning will likely require collaboration between policymakers, the sugarcane industry, and local communities to find cost-effective and sustainable alternatives. More research is needed into potential solutions.

A Note On methodology
Dr. Lachaud considered a total of 25,508,487 observations across emergency department admissions, inpatient hospital admissions, and ambulatory admissions in 20 South Florida counties from 2014 to 2018. Specifically:

  • 18,932,706 emergency department admissions

  • 6,445,930 inpatient hospital admissions

  • 7,129,851 ambulatory admissions

From 2014 to 2018, the 20 South Florida counties saw a total of 18,932,706 emergency department admissions, with 245,247 individuals diagnosed with asthma during these visits. Inpatient hospital admissions amounted to 6,445,930 over the same period, with 46,917 of those cases being asthma  related. Additionally, there were 7,129,851 ambulatory admissions recorded from 2014 to 2018, with 1,059 of those patients receiving an asthma diagnosis. While emergency department and ambulatory admission numbers increased year-over-year, inpatient hospital admissions declined slightly from 1,273,191 in 2014 to 1,283,774 in 2018. The highest number of asthma diagnoses occurred in 2014 across all three admission types. Several statistical and econometric models were estimated along with robustness checks to investigate the relationship between sugarcane burning and asthma incidence rates.

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