EPA warns an immigrant detention center to stop cleaning microwaves with pesticides

Collage of a hand holding spray bottle with microwave and wire fencing. August 2021

Alice Heyeh for The Counter

Collage of a hand holding spray bottle with microwave and wire fencing. August 2021

Alice Heyeh for The Counter

People detained at the Northwest ICE Processing Center constantly use the facility’s microwaves to make meals. The chemicals used to clean them are giving people nosebleeds, skin rashes, and difficulty breathing.

Each housing unit at Tacoma, Washington’s, Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) is equipped with two microwaves. They are in near-constant use by the people detained there, who cook and warm everything in the ovens, from coffee and frozen burritos to elaborate tuna-and-rice dinners prepared using a mishmash of commissary ingredients. 

Jay, a 26-year-old man from Mexico who spent 18 months detained there, said the microwaves are central to life in detention, serving as miniature, box-sized kitchens, around which people gather to replicate in any small measure the lives they had known outside.

So it was hard to ignore that the facility was using harsh disinfectants to clean inside the appliances multiple times a day—chemicals of unknown origin that caused headaches, itchy, irritated eyes, and skin rashes. But people had to eat. 

“The chemicals were mixed in advance by guards, so we never saw what was in the bottles,” said Jay, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym because he has an open immigration case and fears deportation. Jay spent most of his 18 months in detention during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. He was paid $1 a day to clean doorknobs, hallways, and bathrooms with the disinfectants, which were intended to ward off the coronavirus. But the cleaners made him cough, gave him dry, flaky skin, and hurt his eyes—symptoms he said detention center officials ignored. 

“The chemicals were mixed in advance by guards, so we never saw what was in the bottles.”

“I had itchiness and dryness on my face and the [medical unit] just gave me cream and said I had dry skin. When I had pain in my eyes, they would dismiss it and say that I was stressed out. They gave us acetaminophen for the headaches we got from the chemicals,” Jay said. 

Jay wasn’t the only person who experienced these symptoms. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received complaints from immigrants detained inside NWIPC, who said that they were suffering nosebleeds, coughing fits, and dry throats from repeated daily exposure to the disinfectants. 

One of the common areas where the chemicals are used most widely is in shared eating spaces. According to EPA documentation, people detained at NWIPC are tasked with a daily cleaning regimen that includes 48 distinct applications of GS Neutral Disinfectant Cleaner and Sani-T-10 Plus, both of which can cause severe skin burns and serious eye damage, according to the manufacturer, Spartan Chemical Company, Inc. Microwaves, sinks, and counters are cleaned with the chemicals nine times a day, and dining tables are cleaned six times a day—before and after each meal. These cleaning protocols were implemented to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, but detainees continue to catch Covid-19 in high numbers—as of August 9, 172 detained people have tested positive at NWIPC.

NWIPC is run by the Florida-based private prison company GEO Group, which operates more than a dozen detention centers nationwide on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). EPA reviewed the facility in the fall of 2020 and found that GEO was in violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) “for using a pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its labeling,” according to a warning letter the agency issued to the company earlier this month. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Northwest Detention Center is pictured in Tacoma, Washington on February 26, 2017. August 2021

The Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC), formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center, is located in Tacoma, Washington.

JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

A pesticide? That’s right. Dr. Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an exposure scientist, environmental epidemiologist, and assistant professor at John Hopkins University’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, said “pesticide” is the technical term EPA uses to classify all chemicals that kill or repel some type of organism.

“There are herbicides, which are aimed at weeds and unwanted greenery. There are insecticides, which are meant for insects. There are rodenticides, aimed at rodents. So you have different classes, but they’re all pesticides,” Quirós-Alcalá said. The disinfectants used at NWIPC—GS Neutral and Sani-T-10 Plus—fall under that category.

In this case, the organism in question wasn’t a pest in the literal sense. It was coronavirus, an infectious disease. But Jay said detention center staff never trained detained people in how to properly use the disinfectants. Other detained immigrants told EPA that the center had not provided personal protective equipment to wear when conducting the cleaning regimen, and that GEO had also failed to wash their contaminated clothing after they’d used the pesticides, as recommended by Spartan. 

Maru Mora Villalpando, co-founder of the grassroots organization La Resistencia, which supports immigrants detained inside NWIPC, said that “for a few years” detained people called her complaining of skin irritation from chemicals used at the facility. But beginning around June of 2020, the complaints became more frequent and more serious. 

In this case, the organism in question wasn’t a pest in the literal sense. It was coronavirus, an infectious disease.

“The complaints came from people in different units at the detention center at different times of day, and some would tell us that they went to medical for their symptoms and there were other people there with the same complaints,” said Mora Villalpando, who is herself in deportation proceedings. “That’s when I started to realize these chemicals weren’t just being used at a specific time or in a specific area; they were being used all day, multiple times a day, all over the detention center.”

GEO confirmed in an email statement that use of these disinfectants is not a new development. While the company did not respond to specific questions about the case in Tacoma, a spokesperson said that the company has been “safely using cleaning and disinfectant products for several years” and that it intends to “address the EPA notice through the agency’s formal process.”

EPA, which in its warning to GEO threatened civil penalties of up to $20,528 per violation, has also expressed concern that detained immigrants are being directly exposed to the pesticides. 

“Multiple detainees at NWIPC have complained of sore throats and headaches in connection with applications of these pesticide products, indicating detainees may be inhaling the products being applied due to their proximity within the living areas. The continual applications may also result in detainee exposure,” the warning letter said. 

Mora Villalpando is especially concerned about the use of these pesticides on eating surfaces and in microwaves. Unlike in homes, where microwaves are used to reheat leftovers with quick, 30-second zaps, this appliance serves an entirely different function in carceral settings like NWIPC.

In an effort to avoid having to consume the well-documented spoiled meat and milk, slimy sandwiches, and moldy produce served by some detention centers, detained people will often purchase wildly overpriced pantry items from the commissary so that they can cook meals of their own using the microwave. (The Counter recently published a story about two self-taught cooks who used the microwave to cook an array of dishes while in detention.) 

In such settings, microwaves create communal spaces, and they play an important economic role in the lives of detained cooks, who get paid by others to create tastier alternatives to detention center food. Jay told The Counter that in his housing unit, the men pooled their resources each evening to cook a quasi-family meal in the microwave. 

“We don’t really know the long-term consequences of putting pesticides in a microwave over and over again.”

The machines get a lot of use. But a spokesperson from Spartan told The Counter that “most microwave surfaces are non-food contact” and that the company’s guidance on how often the disinfectants should be used will vary depending on location.

“GS Neutral Disinfectant Cleaner and Sani-T-10 Plus are safe to use on any surface not harmed by water,” the spokesperson said in an email. “On food contact surfaces, GS Neutral requires a potable rinse after application, while Sani-T-10 Plus, when used at the recommended dilution, does not.” 

“We don’t really know the long-term consequences of putting pesticides in a microwave over and over again,” Mora Villalpando said. 

Quirós-Alcalá, meanwhile, said she doesn’t completely agree with Spartan’s guidance and that the way that these disinfectants are being used in NWIPC doesn’t make sense.

“There is no reason to use pesticides on eating surfaces or anywhere near a microwave. There is a real risk here of contaminating food,” Quirós-Alcalá said. “With the current data we have on how Covid is spread, there is no reasoning behind applying a pesticide on or in a microwave as a way of dealing with the spread of this virus.” 

Manufacturers like Spartan get their chemicals approved for use by registering them with the EPA, but just because something is registered with the agency doesn’t mean it’s safe for use.

“Before these chemicals are registered, they are not tested for long-term human health effects. In a setting like this, we don’t know the potential long-term impact,” Quirós-Alcalá said. “One of my main concerns is for those with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma, that can be exacerbated by the use of these chemicals during the pandemic. There is a real concern that these products and how they are being applied could be overexposing people with pre-existing conditions. During vulnerable periods, we don’t know what kind of health impacts this may cause.” 

A detainee walks through the Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC), formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center, during a press tour on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. August 2021

People detained at the Northwest ICE Processing Center are tasked with a daily cleaning regimen. Microwaves, sinks, and counters are cleaned nine times a day with chemicals which can cause severe skin burns and serious eye damage.

Jovelle Tamayo/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

This isn’t just happening in Tacoma.

In March, the Los Angeles Times reported on a warning notice that EPA issued to GEO for misuse of a chemical disinfectant spray that had caused immigrants detained at California’s Adelanto Processing Facility to experience nosebleeds, burning eyes, nausea, and headaches. 

EPA’s investigation into the claims at Adelanto found that GEO had instructed detained immigrants and detention center staff to apply the Spartan-manufactured pesticide HDQ Neutral inside the facility as often as every 30 minutes, without proper ventilation and at double the concentration allowed for disinfectant use. HDQ Neutral was also mixed with other chemicals and sprayed inside microwaves without being wiped away afterward, though the product isn’t intended to be used on surfaces that come into contact with food. Detained immigrants told EPA that they sometimes inhaled the spray and that it fell onto their food, landed on their skin, and got into their eyes. They routinely touched tables and other items still wet with the disinfectant, leading to itchy throats, difficulty breathing, lung pain, itchy skin, irritated eyes, and rashes.

Adelanto’s Warden, James Janecka, told the Times that HDQ Neutral had been used at the facility for nine years, and that use increased during the pandemic. But EPA found that at Adelanto, the issue wasn’t just where the chemical was administered and how often. According to the product’s label, goggles and chemical-resistant gloves should be used when handling HDQ Neutral. While detention center staffers were provided those items to wear while working with the product, detained people were not.

In September, lawyers representing the detained people in Adelanto argued that the coughing and sneezing caused by exposure to HDQ Neutral could increase Covid-19 transmission at the facility. According to the Times, when a federal judge ordered GEO Group to immediately stop using HDQ Neutral, lawyers for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) argued that the chemical in fact fights Covid-19 and that the court “should ignore the petitioner’s misleading scaremongering.”

“The improper use of pesticides has come up at multiple locations and it really seems like they’re doing this very willfully.”

As the legislative director for healthy communities in the policy and legislation department at the environmental law organization Earthjustice, Raul Garcia has been tracking GEO Group’s pesticide use. 

“The improper use of pesticides has come up at multiple locations and it really seems like they’re doing this very willfully. They have been put on notice, they know what they’re doing is wrong, and they just don’t seem to care. This is why it’s up to our government to step in and make sure that this stops,” Garcia said.

An EPA spokesperson told The Counter that the agency could not comment on ongoing or potential investigations at detention centers, but that the agency has met with and discussed use of pesticides with DHS and ICE management, and has offered to work with those agencies on preventing further FIFRA compliance issues. 

Garcia said EPA’s warnings are proving to be ineffective, and that other state and federal agencies overseeing worker protections need to step in. Because immigrants in detention centers can earn a very nominal wage for the cleaning work they do, the facilities double as workplaces.

GEO Group is the country’s second-largest private prison company, and reported total revenues of $578 million in 2020. But it only pays immigrants detained at facilities like Adelanto and NWIPC $1 a day to carry out cooking, cleaning, and other tasks. Jay told The Counter that at NWIPC, he was regularly assigned to cleaning tasks that he had not agreed to do at the $1-a-day rate. For instance, during one particular period, Jay had to spend his nights cleaning door handles and “filthy bathrooms,” using spray bottles filled with unknown chemicals that had been handed to him by detention center guards.  

Given GEO’s improper use of pesticides and the private prison company’s practice of entering into employment agreements with detained people, Garcia said he’s confused as to why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) isn’t monitoring detention centers more closely.

“The EPA has the discretion to issue penalties and hefty penalties need to be instituted because we know that the warnings aren’t working,” Garcia said. “And it also seems OSHA should also have a role to play here. These are abuses in the workplace, so where are they on this?”

Tracing the lines of accountability isn’t an easy task. California and Washington, for instance, have their own state-level OSHA plans, which are not run by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. After more than a week of communication back and forth, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries finally told The Counter that it is not in communication with EPA regarding GEO’s use of pesticides at NWIPC; the agency is not currently monitoring detained immigrants’ use of pesticides; that “like any other employee, inmates who are doing the work of an employee can file complaints” with the agency.

“The detention center does what it wants. It only changes its behavior because it knows it is getting investigated. But then when the outsiders leave it goes back to doing the same thing it was doing before.”

In reference to pesticide use at California’s Adelanto detention center, Cal/OSHA first referred The Counter to the Department of Pesticide Regulation, which in turn referred us to EPA. When pushed on whether the agency monitored detention centers as workplaces, and if there are reporting mechanisms in place for immigrants working at facilities where they are detained, Cal/OSHA would only say that it does not track immigration status, will never ask a worker their status, and that “all workers in California have labor rights regardless of immigration status.” (It’s worth noting that Spartan’s Sani-T-10 Plus was cited in a series of workplace citations and penalties that OSHA issued to a produce company in 2014, for mixing the chemical with others and failing to inform workers of associated hazards, symptoms of exposure, and what precautionary measures to take.)

Mora Villalpando said she’s tried for years to get OSHA involved in monitoring detention centers as workplaces because of their dollar-a-day work programs, but the agency has failed to address the issue. She suspects this is because, if the federal agency acknowledges that detained immigrants are also employees of the facilities where they are held, it would have serious implications for how much detained workers should be paid and whether they should receive back pay. Both issues are the subject of ongoing lawsuits against GEO in Washington. 

“All of this really illustrates the urgency to stop bringing people into these facilities, and to shut them down entirely,” Mora Villalpando said. “Over and over again, we see a total disregard for people’s lives.” 

In audio recordings of interviews made by La Resistencia in July and shared with The Counter, detained immigrants tasked with cleaning NWIPC said little has changed since they were interviewed by EPA. One person said that the cycle of “spray, clean, disinfect” continues hourly, including before and after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In another interview, a woman said she had been told by EPA that GEO Group should offer her a change of clothing after she uses the disinfectants. 

“To this day, no one has offered me a change of clothes,” she said.

Jay said he can still remember when a “group of outsiders” showed up at the detention center, people he now believes to have been officials investigating the pesticide complaints. In the days leading up to the visit, he said, detention center guards made them clean the facility more thoroughly than normal. 

“I just remember the people showing up when we were eating and nobody wanted to talk to them because they were afraid of getting deported,” Jay said. “I don’t think [the EPA warning] will change anything. The detention center does what it wants. It only changes its behavior because it knows it is getting investigated. But then when the outsiders leave it goes back to doing the same thing it was doing before.”

Tina Vasquez is a senior staff writer at The Counter focusing on immigration, gender, and food systems. She was previously a senior reporter at Prism, a women of color-led non-profit news outlet. A 2020 Type Investigations Ida B. Wells Fellow, she has written for The Nation, NPR, Playboy, and the Boston Globe. She is based in North Carolina.