Immigrants in Detention Facilities At Risk of Toxic Chemical Exposure, According to Newly Compiled Research

Immigrant rights and environmental groups call for the immediate release of those held at migrant detention facilities


Erin Fitzgerald, Press Secretary, Earthjustice


Robert Valencia, Spanish Language Media Strategist , Earthjustice


Armando Carmona, Communications Director, Inland Empire Coalition for Immigrant Justice, (951) 966-6500


Rebekah Entralgo, Media Advocacy Specialist, Freedom for Immigrants

Today, the Shut Down Adelanto Coalition held a press conference to share new information about the ongoing use of the industrial disinfectant HDQ Neutral, which contains hazardous chemicals, at the Adelanto Immigrant Detention Facility, run by the private prison company the GEO Group. In addition to the dangers already faced by those in custody, including lack of access to medical care, COVID-19 continues to spread and the misuse of HDQ Neutral is causing physical harm to immigrants in ICE custody.

The event featured testimony from immigrants who experienced mistreatment inside Adelanto, including José Tapete, an immigrant, advocate and organizer who was held for weeks at and and has had health effects from chemical spraying and from 11 women who sent a letter from inside the facility and was co-hosted by Inland Empire Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice, Freedom for Immigrants, and Earthjustice among other local partners. Representative Mark Takano (D-Calif.) also joined the call. Last month, he along with Representative Vargas (D-Calif.) sent a letter to ICE, seeking answers to allegations raised by the coalition about the improper use of toxic cleaning agents at Adelanto.

A new fact sheet, developed by Earthjustice, provides an overview of available scientific research that documents the negative health impacts associated with even low levels of exposure to this class of chemicals, including:

  • Respiratory irritation, inflammation, infertility and birth defects, even after active exposure has ended, has been demonstrated in human and animal studies that looked at both short- and long-term effects.
  • Exposure to chemicals in the same class as HDQ Neutral can lead to asthma after long-term exposure. According to the Center for Disease Control, moderate to severe asthma is linked to the likelihood of serious complications from COVID-19.
  • One of the active ingredients in HDQ can be genotoxic, meaning it results in damage to someone’s DNA, which could lead to cell death and disruption of normal cell activity.

Due to the link between exposure to this class of chemicals and asthma, HDQ neutral could potentially make immigrants at Adelanto more vulnerable to COVID-19 and they may experience a higher severity of symptoms. Further, the long-term health effects observed in animal studies raise concerns about the safety of this class of chemicals.

The industrial disinfectant is only supposed to be used outdoors or in well-ventilated areas, according to the manufacturer. However, testimonies from immigrants being held, some of which were shared today, state that the chemicals are being sprayed every 15–30 minutes in close proximity and sometimes directly at them. Dozens of complaints have been issued by those detained, yet both U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the GEO Group continue to deny the danger and are undermining a whistleblower’s attempts to expose the danger. From intimidation to direct retaliation, immigrants continue to face increasing threats to their lives and to their health.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has continued to show flagrant disregard for the health of those in custody, including the use of industrial chemical disinfectants at other migrant detention facilities and attempting to build new facilities on highly toxic superfund sites.

DHS and ICE has proven time and again that they have no regard for human life and cannot be trusted to protect those in custody. There is no guarantee or indication that these heavy industrial chemicals can be used safely in detention facilities, where people are held in close proximity and are exposed involuntarily. Until there is concrete proof that this chemical can be safely applied at facilities like this, its use must be discontinued immediately. However, the ongoing failures of DHS and ICE have created conditions that make it impossible to keep those in custody safe and therefore, as a coalition we are calling for the immediate release of everyone being held in migrant detention facilities.

Quotes from the Speakers:

“The GEO officers are using this chemical when we are eating or using the phone. All detainees are having allergy, throat problems, nose bleeding, or difficulties breathing. We are in an enclosed area, no air, no natural light, the HDQ Neutral is accumulating and the only air we breathe. We have complained but nothing is done by GEO officers,” according to a letter sent by 11 women housed at the Adelanto Facility and read by Guillermo Torres, an organizer with Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

“The crowded and closed conditions in Adelanto, along with the fact that immigrants in detention do not have protective equipment, render the use of HDQ Neutral not only highly problematic, but also grossly illegal,” said Raul Garcia, Legislative Director of Healthy Communities at Earthjustice.

“We must take seriously any allegations that detainees are suffering adverse health effects due to the excessive and improper use of cleaning agents at the Adelanto Detention Facility in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I, along with Congressman Juan Vargas, have sent letters to both ICE and the Warden at Adelanto seeking information on the usage of this disinfectant and any correlation between its improper use and detainee illness. ICE’s response that they are following all proper procedures was woefully inadequate and directly contrary to the information being reported on the ground. It is critical that in the midst of this public health crisis, that efforts to curb and prevent the spread of COVID-19 are both safe and effective,” urged Representative Mark Takano (D-Calif.).


Learn more about toxic exposure in U.S. detention facilities:

A family gathers at a recent #FreeThemAll protest outside the Adelanto Detention facility.
(Julio Manzo, provided by Inland Empire Coalition for Immigrant Justice)
A family gathers at a recent #FreeThemAll protest outside the Adelanto Detention facility. (Julio Manzo, provided by Inland Empire Coalition for Immigrant Justice)

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