New rules fall short of protecting schoolchildren from pesticide exposure, Latino kids most at risk. | Pesticide Action Network
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New rules fall short of protecting schoolchildren from pesticide exposure, Latino kids most at risk.

Rural school bus

September 29, 2016

Part-time no-spray buffer zones inadequate, don’t protect against repeated & ongoing exposure

Sacramento, CA – Draft regulations announced today meant to protect California schoolchildren and staff from exposure to hazardous agricultural pesticides have drawn criticism from parents, teachers and advocates for social justice, who say they fall far short of providing the protection needed, particularly for Latino schoolchildren who are more likely to attend the most impacted schools.  

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR) long-awaited draft rules would establish a first-ever statewide buffer zone around public schools and daycare centers in California. The regulations would prohibit any applications by aircraft, sprinklers, air-blast or fumigation on fields within a quarter mile of schools. But the restriction would only apply between the hours of 6am and 6pm, Monday to Friday, despite clear evidence that many of the most hazardous pesticides linger in the air for hours or even days.

“Schoolchildren are being exposed to chemicals that threaten their health and potential, with Latino kids most at risk,” said Sarah Aird, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. “A host of studies have shown that pesticide poisonings occur at distances well beyond a quarter mile. And part-time buffer zones do little to reduce long-term, chronic exposure. Schools need at least a one-mile buffer for the most hazardous pesticides.”

The proposed regulations would also require growers and applicators to provide schools with advance notification when certain pesticides are applied. Advocates note that the regulations hand over decision-making power to growers, who now would have to agree to any stronger local restrictions.

Even low-level agricultural pesticide exposure is linked to significant childhood health harms, including developmental, neurological and reproductive harms, as well as asthma, autism and cancer. For those in affected communities who have been advocating for better protections for children, the new rules are not enough. The public comment period for the new rules ends on November 17.

A full-time, one-mile buffer for the most hazardous pesticides is the key demand of parents and teachers from California’s agricultural regions, who point to a growing body of scientific evidence in support of greater protections. According to a study by state and federal health departments, a one-mile buffer would prevent 85% of acute exposure illnesses, while only 24% of non-work drift illnesses occurred at distances of a quarter mile or less. A University of California - Davis MIND Institute study documented significantly increased rates of autism in children of mothers who lived up to one mile from fields. The UC Berkeley CHAMACOS study of farmworker families in Salinas found contamination from the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos in homes up to 1.8 miles from treated fields. And the California Childhood Leukemia Study reported elevated concentrations of several pesticides in the dust of homes up to ¾ mile from treated fields.

“DPR is long overdue in stepping up to do its job, which is to protect all Californians regardless of race or place,” said Ann Lopez, Executive Director of the Center for Farm Worker Families. “I’m glad the Department of Public Health report motivated DPR to act after years of foot-dragging, but it is beyond disappointing that they have failed to propose health-protective rules. Once again it is the most disenfranchised people who will pay the price, especially low-income people of color.”

DPR’s announcement comes more than two years after the 2014 release of a report by the California Department of Public Health, which for the first time documented the extent of use of the most hazardous agricultural pesticides near public schools in 15 agricultural counties in California. The report revealed that more than half a million pounds of 144 pesticides of public health concern are used within a quarter mile of California schools each year.  The ten most heavily used are all associated with at least one severe impact on children’s health and learning. These schools are attended by 500,000 students, who suffer long-term chronic exposure throughout their childhood to chemicals known to cause cancer and other severe health impacts.

The report also documented a marked racial disparity at the most impacted schools. In the 15 agricultural counties studied, Latino schoolchildren were nearly twice (91%) as likely to attend a school near the heaviest pesticide use as their white peers.

The no-spray buffer zones established by the new rules do not apply full-time, leaving advocates concerned about exposure for children and staff on campus after hours and on weekends. Moreover, eight of the ten pesticides most heavily used near schools persist in the environment for more than a week. Applications of hazardous pesticides in the early morning on school days, a common practice, would still be permitted under the new rules. “Pesticides have no respect for the school calendar,” said Francisco Rodriguez, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers in Monterey County. “A part time no-spray buffer zone simply does not protect kids from exposure.”

For its policy decision-making, DPR considers pesticides on an individual basis, although they are frequently used in combination. A recent study by UCLA examined the interactive effects of three hazardous fumigants that are among the most commonly used around schools. The study found that exposure to any two of these fumigants can increase cancer risk by more than just their sum. “Just like drug interactions, some pesticides cause much greater harm when they are used together,” said Caroline Cox, Research Director at the Center for Environmental Health. “It’s incumbent upon policymakers to consider real-world exposure.”

Pesticide drift incidents near schools occur regularly in California, harming students and teachers alike. In February, an aerial spray of a potent insecticide took place during school hours in the Pajaro Valley School District in Monterey County, causing an outcry among staff and parents. Last October, a pesticide application across the street from Coachella Valley High School in Riverside County sickened 20 students and eight staff, and led to only a $5,000 fine for the violator, far short of the maximum $140,000 that could have been levied.

Health and justice advocates point out that schools buffer zones are just a start, and that agricultural methods that cause harm to children and the environment are not sustainable in the long-term. Community leaders from California’s agricultural regions are calling on DPR to lead the way toward a transition from hazardous agricultural pesticides. “Part-time, quarter mile buffer zones are not nearly enough,” said Margaret Reeves, PhD, senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network. “Policymakers need to provide support and training for farmers to transition to safer farming methods that don’t harm kids. We urge state officials, particularly DPR, the Department of Food and Agriculture and the Governor to make the necessary investments in the future of California agriculture.”

Legislation introduced earlier this year (SB 1247, Jackson) intended to provide financial and technical incentives for growers affected by the new rules was defeated in the Senate under pressure from industrial agriculture interest groups.

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Californians for Pesticide Reform is a diverse, statewide coalition of over 190 member groups working to strengthen pesticide policies in California to protect public health and the environment. Member groups include public and children's health advocates, clean air and water groups, health practitioners, environmental justice groups, labor, education, farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates from across the state.

Contacts:
Paul Towers, 916-216-1082, ptowers@panna.org
Mark Weller, 831-325-1681, mark@pesticidereform.org