Immigrant detainees say ICE is using coronavirus disinfectant sprays that cause bleeding, burns and pain

Advocacy organizations have filed complaints against Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in Florida and California, claiming that migrants being held there are suffering severe side effects from disinfectant sprays being used to combat the coronavirus.

One of the complaints was sent by Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice and the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants on May 21. That complaint, which focused on the Adelanto detention center in California, included testimonials from detainees who called in to a hotline run by Freedom for Immigrants.

“The guards have started spraying this chemical everywhere, all over everything, all the time. It causes a terrible reaction on our skin,” one of the detainees said, adding, “When I blow my nose, blood comes out. They are treating us like animals. One person fainted and was taken out, I don't know what happened to them. There is no fresh air.”

This Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, photo shows the Adelanto U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Processing Center operated by GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) a Florida-based company specializing in privatized corrections in Adelanto, Calif. California is banning the use of for-profit, private detention facilities, including those the federal government uses for immigrants awaiting deportation hearings. Chris Carlson/AP Photo)
The Adelanto detention center in California. (Chris Carlson/AP Photo)

ICE denies it is using disinfectants in a manner that would be dangerous to detainees.

Some of the detainees who called the hotline identified the chemical being sprayed at Adelanto as a disinfectant called HDQ Neutral, based on labeled bottles they saw at the facility.

Safety guidelines for HDQ Neutral issued by its manufacturer, Spartan Chemical, warn that the disinfectant is “harmful if inhaled” and that it “causes severe skin burns and serious eye damage.” The guidelines specify that HDQ Neutral should be used “only outdoors or in a well-ventilated area” and protective gear should be worn while handling the chemical.

According to the complaint about Adelanto, which is one of the country’s largest ICE detention centers, staff there are spraying HDQ Neutral “every 15-30 minutes” on surfaces throughout the housing unit, which lacks ventilation. The complaint said “at least nine” detainees have experienced severe symptoms from the spray since May 11, including blisters, rashes, bleeding, fainting, breathing difficulties, headaches, stomach pain and nausea. Multiple detainees complained of receiving inadequate care for these symptoms.

“Many of us are very allergic to the substance that they have been spraying. It causes rashes and there is one man with blisters … They spray it on the phones, chairs, tables, every 15-20 minutes - all day & all night long,” said one of the detainees quoted in the complaint.

“There is no fresh air to breathe in the room. The guards have masks & gloves so don't seem bothered by it but many of us have very red eyes, sore throats, and headaches."

The detainees’ names were not included in the complaint due to concerns about potential retaliation.

The Adelanto detention center is operated by the GEO Group, a private prison company that has contracts with ICE to run multiple facilities. The complaint about chemical sprays at the facility was sent to the GEO Group, multiple ICE officials and the office of civil rights and civil liberties at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE.

GEO Group spokesperson Christopher Ferreira referred questions about the use of chemical sprays at Adelanto to ICE. Alexx Pons, a spokesperson for ICE, said in a statement that the agency is “committed to maintaining the highest facility standards of cleanliness and sanitation, safe work practices, and control of hazardous substances and equipment to ensure the environmental health and safety of detainees, staff, volunteers and contractors from injury and illness.”

“Disinfectant formulations used at Adelanto are compliant with detention standards, registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and used according to manufacturers’ instructions for routine cleaning and maintenance of the facility,” Pons said. “Any assertion or claim to the contrary is false.”

The complaints about chemical spraying at Adelanto come on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California on behalf of six detainees at the facility. That suit alleged there was a “humanitarian crisis” at the facility due to the coronavirus, which was leading to a situation in which the deadly illness could “explode” among the detainees.

Last month, Freedom for Immigrants published complaints about unsanitary conditions at Adelanto that it received on the hotline. In the more recent complaint about the use of HDQ Neutral, the organization expressed concern that the use of the spray was a response to detainees voicing their concerns.

“We are especially concerned that the misuse of and purposeful exposure to such harsh chemicals is retaliatory. In late April, we received and made public reports from people in detention in Adelanto that they were cleaning the facility ‘just with water’ or shampoo and were not provided appropriate cleaning supplies to sanitize the facility,” the complaint said.

Protesters stand outside ICE's Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Fla.
Protesters outside ICE's Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., on May 1. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

According to ICE, the agency has released “over 900 individuals” from custody due to concerns about COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As of May 23, ICE reported there were 25,911 detainees in custody, and 2,670 of them have been tested. In total, the agency said, those tests identified 1,392 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the detainee population. But immigrant groups have raised concerns about the agency’s testing procedures, particularly given the high infection rate among the population that has been tested.

Advocates and multiple federal judges have pushed for more people to be released due to concerns about illness spreading in crowded detention facilities.

Along with the complaint about HDQ Neutral being used at Adelanto, there are similar complaints about detainees suffering severe side effects due to disinfectant sprays deployed at the ICE facility inside the Glades County Detention Center in Florida.

On May 23, an organization called Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees filed a complaint with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties about the use of a product at Glades called Mint Disinfectant. The complaint was written by the group’s lead organizer, Wendy King.

“Staff are spraying a chemical inside the housing units that is causing serious respiratory distress among people with asthma, bronchitis, and other medical conditions. They are reporting that after the spray is used, people with asthma must use their inhalers more frequently, and that some people are suffering from shortness of breath and/or headaches,” King wrote.

Safety guidelines from the manufacturer of Mint Disinfectant warn that it can cause “serious eye damage” and “eye irritation” and specify that it should not be exposed to skin. The guidelines say the chemical should be used only in a well-ventilated area with the use of protective gear and that anyone who inhales the chemical should be allowed to “breathe fresh air.” Additionally, the product guidelines warn to “avoid all unnecessary exposure.”

Odalys K. Fernandez, Laurie Woodward Garcia and Yaquelin Lopez protest outside an ICE office in Miramar, Fla.
Odalys K. Fernandez, Laurie Woodward Garcia and Yaquelin Lopez protest outside an ICE office in Miramar, Fla., on March 13. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

According to King, the complaint about Mint Disinfectant was based on “reports from several people” detained at Glades that her group began receiving on May 14. Some of these reports from detainees came through a messaging system they have access to while in custody.

The group provided Yahoo News with screenshots of complaints sent from five detainees after requesting anonymity for the complainants due to concerns about potential retaliation.

“They are also still spraying chemical with us all in here,” one of the detainees wrote. “We can’t really breath cause its too much.”

“They was some mint stuff,” another detainee wrote. “Everybody in here getting sick.”

One of the detainees reported that the disinfectant was being sprayed by other inmates who have been appointed as “trustees” and who were not wearing protective gear. The detainee said the trustees carried the disinfectant in 20-gallon containers with a “hand pump.”

In a follow-up letter sent on May 24, King outlined other issues at the facility that she said amounted to a “humanitarian crisis,” including multiple detainees suffering from high fevers without receiving COVID-19 testing or medical care or being given enough space to stay separated from other inmates. King also alleged there are frequent power outages at the facility that have caused a lack of air-conditioning.

“Despite a deputy at Glades County Jail testing positive for COVID-19, we are receiving reports that NO detained person has been tested for the virus,” King wrote. “This morning we received multiple reports about detained people passing out from high fevers. No one has reported being able to see a doctor.”

ICE’s facility at the Glades County Detention Center is operated by the Glades County Sheriff’s Office. In a conversation with Yahoo News on Thursday evening, Glades County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Keith Henson, who supervises the jail, said Mint Disinfectant is being “utilized in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations” at the facility.

“It’s the same disinfectant that’s used in hospitals and medical environments throughout our nation,” Henson said, later adding, “It’s a cleaning collusion for surfaces ... it’s applied to the surfaces to disinfect and try to keep the environment as clear as we can.”

Henson said he was aware the disinfectant could cause eye irritation.

“If you spray it in your eye, yup, it will do that,” he said.

He also denied the chemical was being pumped out of 20-gallon drums, which would weigh about 150 pounds when full.

“I wish I had a staff member that could carry a 20-gallon drum,” said Henson.

And Henson denied there have been problems with the air-conditioning at the detention center.

“We’re in Florida,” he said. “Can you imagine a detention facility with no windows not being a controlled-air environment?”

Overall, Henson said, “the staff, administration and community is doing everything in their power to safeguard staff, inmates, detainees and the public as we all … address the concerns that our nation is facing today during these extremely trying times.”

However, he declined to answer a question about how many detainees at Glades have been tested for COVID-19 and referred the matter to ICE.

“I can’t speak on the medical side of things,” Henson said.

Pons, the ICE spokesperson, pointed to the data the agency reported on May 23, which said there were two confirmed COVID-19 cases at Glades.

“Detainees continue to be tested for COVID-19 in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance,” Pons said.


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