After years of pressure from communities across California, the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) finally took action last week to protect schoolchildren from agricultural pesticide exposure. While not all that we'd hoped for, state officials announced new rules that establish a buffer zone for agricultural pesticides around public schools and daycare centers.
Among other safeguards, the policy prohibits the most drift-prone application methods on fields within a quarter-mile of schools between the weekday hours of 6am and 6pm. Growers will also now be required to provide an annual list of pesticides they plan to use near schools. And there are additional restrictions on fumigant pesticides, which can’t be used within a 36-hour period before a school day.
These are the first statewide buffers of this kind in the country, and we are very thankful to all the persistent and brave community members who stepped up to keep pressure on the state to make this happen. Communities in California’s agricultural regions are most frequently exposed to agricultural pesticides, and the work continues to ensure that workers, families and children are fully protected from these chemicals. PAN and our allies will stand by their sides through this ongoing effort.
Good, but not good enough
While the new rules are an important step, they do not go far enough in protecting kids at school or daycare. Because the restrictions are part-time buffers, kids using school grounds for games, practices and other extracurricular activities on weekends or after 6pm on weekdays won't be protected. And what about pesticides that linger hours after they're applied?
Francisco Rodriguez, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, says pesticides have no respect for the school calendar.
A part-time, no-spray buffer zone simply does not protect kids from exposure."
Although the new part-time, quarter-mile buffer zone provided is an improvement over the existing patchwork of county restrictions, the buffer distances should be — and could be — more health protective.
Communities have demanded one-mile buffers since the beginning of the rulemaking process. Why? Because independent scientific studies have demonstrated chronic health impacts of pesticide exposures at distances one mile or more. Too often, regulators fail to address the impacts of chronic exposure.
Nayamin Martinez, Executive Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network, put it this way:
We know repeated exposures to even small amounts of pesticides contribute to significant and permanent health problems, including cancer, neurological disease, respiratory impacts and birth defects. How can DPR ignore these chronic effects of pesticide exposure on school kids?"
And while protections are particularly important for children's developing bodies, they're also for teachers and other school staff. Studies have shown that women exposed to hazardous pesticides during pregnancy have increased risks of bearing children with various health impacts like autism, developmental delays, birth defects, cancer and more.
In addition to the buffer distance not being robust enough, the new notification requirements are not as comprehensive as communities had demanded. Growers are required to inform the individual school administration about their annual plans for pesticide application, but there is no requirement for the school administration to share that information with parents.
While community members could ask the school administration to see the annual pesticide application plans, the new rules place the burden on the parents. Many schools already have a ‘robocall’ system in place to inform parents and guardians of emergency situations; as proposed by several community members, this system could also be used to share information about hazardous pesticide applications near schools.
Along with other members of the Californians for Pesticide Reform coalition, we at PAN are pleased to see implementation of buffer zones around schools. It's important to celebrate wins, even when they aren't perfect. And we recognize that there is more work ahead of us to truly protect children — and the rest of us — from harmful exposure to agricultural pesticides.