04/08/2011 04:43 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2011

Heart of Stone

What made 292 members of the House of Representatives pass the infamous bill HR 872?

Let's see. The bill, or rather this legislative outrage, would keep the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from adopting guidelines to keep pesticide discharges out of our waterways. And to make matters worse, they called it "The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act."

This outrage would impose an even harsher punishment on farm workers, 88 percent of whom are Latinos -- that is 2.5 million people. This vulnerable community is already bombarded every day with some of the most toxic substances known to humans.

The effects of pesticide exposure are devastating, causing a terrifying array of cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, female farm workers are 300 percent more likely to suffer from breast cancer than the rest of the country's women.

But the ones who suffer the devastating effects of pesticides the most are these workers' children, who are disproportionately hit with cancers such as leukemia, lymphomas, neoroblastomas and brain tumors. These poisons have been linked to genetic and brain defects that foster learning disabilities and mental retardation.

These kids are constantly exposed to pesticides via the air they breathe, their physical contact with their parents and the water they drink.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), there are pesticides in 92 percent of the country's waterways close to agricultural areas and 38 percent of the country's water wells. Another USGS study revealed that 96 percent of the fish tested in the country's main waterways contained at least one type of pesticide.

These 292 alleged representatives of the people have demonstrated a profound ignorance of the realities of the Latino community -- or cruelty levels hard to comprehend, or both.

But this onslaught "to reduce regulatory burdens" is not new. And we Latinos continue to be among their main victims.

Under a judicial order, the EPA finally has proposed new safeguards that would eliminate 91 percent of the emissions of mercury emitted from coal fired power plants, as well as arsenic, lead, dioxins and other poisons. This pollution has been linked to cancer, heart disease, birth defects, asthma and premature death.

According to a survey by the Center for American Progress, 66 percent of Latinos -- 25.6 million people -- live in areas that fail to meet federal clean air standards. We Latinos are 300 percent more likely to die from asthma than the White population, and our children are 60 percent more likely to have asthma attacks.

Even so, the House's Republican majority seems to be hellbent on stripping the EPA of its regulatory powers, alleging that the modernization of these dirty coal plants would trigger a loss of jobs and make energy more expensive.

The new protections would increase the average energy bill by $3 to $4 a month. But what these alleged representatives wouldn't tell you is that, according to the EPA, each year, these new protections would prevent 17,000 premature deaths, 120,000 asthma attacks and the loss of 850,000 days of work because of illness. In total, the country would save $100 billion each year.

Let's use mercury as an example. This poison is mainly emitted from coal-fired plants. The rain brings it down to waterways, where it becomes its most toxic version, methyl-mercury. Then fish ingest it and so do we by eating the fish.

There are currently fish advisories to protect people against mercury and other toxic pollution in all 50 states, two territories and five Native American tribes. According to a Sierra Club survey, a third of Latinos fish at least once in a while, and 76 percent of them eat what they catch. In other words, they may unknowingly expose themselves to mercury poisoning because the written warnings are either non-existent or available only in English.

Mercury is especially dangerous for babies and the fetus because it tends to accumulate in the mother's umbilical cord blood. At least eight and as much as 16 percent of women of childbearing age have dangerous levels of mercury in their blood, and each year, at least 300,000 babies are born with similarly risky levels.

So what does it take to legislate in such a cruel manner? A heart of stone.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_sc.