Reclaiming the future of food and farming

California schoolkids in harm's way

Kristin Schafer's picture

This is very powerful data. A new, first-of-its-kind report from California's Department of Health (DPH) shows that health-harming agricultural pesticides are being sprayed close to schools across the state.

Not just a few pesticides, either — or a few schools. More than 500,000 California children in hundreds of schools spend their days within 1/4 mile of pesticide applications. Of these, more than 100,000 (mostly Latino) children in 226 schools attend classrooms near fields with the heaviest use of dangerous chemicals. We have a problem.

We know these pesticides can drift from where they're applied, and often much more than 1/4 mile. PAN and our partners have been pressing EPA to do a better job protecting children from drift at the national level; the agency is now taking another look at whether its "spray drift" guidelines could be stronger.

We also know many of these pesticides can put kids' health at risk. Of the top 10 pesticides most commonly used near schools, all have been linked to at least one harmful impact on children's health or development — from cancer to reproductive system harms, from IQ loss to neurodevelopmental delays. Some can have multiple impacts.

One of the top 10 "most used near schools" pesticides is chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that was banned for use in homes more than a decade ago because it was known to harm children's developing nervous systems.

In the intervening years, the evidence of harm has only gotten stronger. Chlorpyrifos was recently added to the list of substances public health experts are linking to a nationwide "chemical brain drain" — reduced mental capacity due to exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.

Top 10 Pesticides near Schools
Share this Top Ten Pesticides graphic via PAN's Facebook page.

Better policies needed

Authors of the new report looked at the top 15 counties that accounted for the majority (85%) of pesticide use in the state, including all San Joaquin Valley counties in the Central Valley region, and several counties along the central coast.

DPH officials did careful analysis over a period of two years, in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders including county agricultural commissioners, public health officers, industrial agricultural groups and public interest organizations.

California's pesticide use reporting system made the data crunching possible. And though the report's numbers are accurate, it should be noted that authors looked at only one year — 2010 — and a glance at more recently reported numbers shows that statewide pesticide use is going up, from a total 175 million pounds in 2010 to 186 million pounds in 2012.

I don't know about you, but to me these numbers seem to be moving in the wrong direction. 

A missed opportunity

As an active and longtime member of Californians for Pesticide Reform, we at PAN fully support the CPR response to the report, including these commonsense policy recommendations:

  • Make significant investments in research and support for growers to transition to safe, sustainable replacements for fumigants and chlorpyrifos by 2020.
  • Establish large “protection zones” around schools to maximize the distance between schools and pesticide applications.
  • Require notification of schools and parents before applications of hazardous pesticides.

Unfortunately, the report's quiet release last Friday — after an inexplicable months-long delay — came the day after a hearing in Sacramento on a proposed law that would have addressed that final bullet. The bill in question (SB1411, Jackson) would have required advance notice of pesticide spraying near schools and homes.

The data in the new DPH report clearly would have helped policymakers make a more informed decision on that law — which, sadly, was voted down in committee.

But we'll keep pressing for change. As a mom, I'm outraged that schoolchildren aren't being protected from these harmful pesticides. And as a California taxpayer, it's pretty clear to me that state officials need to do a much, much better job protecting our kids. They are, after all, working for us.

Kristin Schafer
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jacquieb's picture
jacquieb /
<p>Thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront. &nbsp;As a teacher who works across the street and adjacent to a field in Salinas, CA, I have seen helicopters spraying the fields in the morning right before students go out for recess (10:00 am). &nbsp;Children are suffering from cancer and asthma. &nbsp;I have contacted the growers who have informed me that they are within the regulated guidelines. This response is unacceptable. &nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are several students who are suffering from cancers, which I am sure is attributable to the pesticides. &nbsp;I have also had students ask to get their inhaler within 30 minutes from when the helicopters spray. &nbsp;We must help to change what is being sprayed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The spraying usually takes place early in the morning, however the ocean breeze kicks up in the afternoon and the dust blows from the fields to right where the kids are playing PE. Standing in the field, while the kids play, I can taste the pesticides. With your support, I am hopeful that this issue can be looked at and the regulations amended to protect out kids.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thank you again, and please let me know what I can do to help support your cause.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
Kristin Schafer's picture
Kristin Schafer /
<p>Thank you so much for sharing your story! You can support our work by spreading the word about the links between children&#39;s health harms and pesticides - see resources to get you started, here:</p> <p>And also by joining the PAN online community here:</p> <p>We&#39;ll send alerts and updates so you can help us press for strategic changes in policy and practice.&nbsp; Thank you so much for all you do as a teacher - and for being involved!</p>
Kristin Schafer's picture

Kristin Schafer was PAN's Executive Director until early 2022. With training in international policy and social change strategies, Kristin was at PAN for over 25 years. Before taking on the Executive Director role in 2017, she was PAN's program and policy director. She was lead author on several PAN reports, with a particular emphasis on children's health. She continues to serve on the Policy Committee of the Children's Environmental Health Network. Follow @KristinAtPAN