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Radioactive roads? Legislature floods our streets with cancer-causing chemicals

Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed

This op-ed was originally published in the Orlando Sentinel

By Cindy Lerner, Catalyst Miami, and Florida Clinicians for Climate Action 

Cindy Lerner is a former Florida state legislator and former mayor of Pinecrest.

Fact number one: Two weeks ago, South Florida got 26 inches of rain in seven hours, piling onto 31 inches from the previous three days. This caused unprecedented flooding in our streets, buildings, and homes.

Fact number two: Severe flooding releases toxic chemicals from our roads into our water and air. We can be exposed to viruses, parasites, bacteria, and now — if the fertilizer industry prevails — a radioactive waste known as phosphogypsum.

Florida lawmakers just passed a bill that clears the way for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to use phosphogypsum — a high-risk, carcinogenic pollutant that releases toxins — in road construction. Phosphogypsum is not necessary for building roads, and decades of science prove that it poses substantial risk to people’s health, workers’ safety, and the environment. Yet, House Bill 1191 and Senate Bill 1258 appears to be on its way to becoming state law — unless we, the residents of Florida, can stop it.

As the Center for Biological Diversity wrote about HB 1191 and SB 1258, “An expert consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency found numerous scenarios that would expose the public — particularly road-construction workers — to a cancer risk the agency considers to be unacceptably dangerous.” Although the EPA has long prohibited the use of phosphogypsum in roads, “for the last several years, the fertilizer industry has pushed lawmakers to allow it.”

At Florida Clinicians for Climate Action and Catalyst Miami, we witness first-hand how the impacts of climate change harm residents across the state, especially those with limited income or preexisting health conditions. The truth is, while frontline communities experience the first and worst impacts of climate change, nature is not stopping for any of us. Inarguably, the frequency of intense rains and flooding will only increase as our dependence on fossil fuels keeps accelerating climate change.

The World Health Organization reported that areas are more vulnerable to chemical release during flooding if the land has little capacity for absorbing rain. This vulnerability increases if structures lack adequate planning and building regulations. Two statements that describe Florida to a tee — and, even more so, communities that lack resilient urban infrastructure.

Why, then, would our state Legislature want to codify the use of phosphogypsum in our road construction, fast-track a study on the suitability of the product as a construction material, and deregulate phosphogypsum as a solid waste?

The same polluting corporations that have caused mass fish kills and dumped fertilizer into our pristine wetlands stand to profit from this bill, while the health and safety of Florida residents will suffer.

What could you do to stop this detrimental bill from becoming state law? Contact your state lawmakers at and tell them to vote no on HB 1191 and SB 1258 (it helps if you say the bill name and/or number). Encourage your friends and family to do the same.

Every two years, we elect the members of our state House and Senate: the very lawmakers who make these life-altering decisions on our behalf. Double-check your registration and remember to vote with public health, climate resilience, and worker safety in mind.


Cindy Lerner is a former Florida state legislator and former mayor of Pinecrest. She wrote this in conjunction with Catalyst Miami and Florida Clinicians for Climate Action.

Catalyst Miami’s mission is to build power with frontline communities throughout Miami-Dade County to collectively advance justice and achieve shared prosperity. Florida Clinicians for Climate Action engages Florida health professionals to learn about the health harms of climate change and advocate for equitable solutions that protect the community and support a sustainable future.


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