Picture of Paul Towers

Paul Towers

Best present for Dad? Protecting our kids from pesticides.

Gadgets and ties are great, but this Father’s Day I’m celebrating the growing momentum to protect kids’ health from pesticides in California and beyond.

Over the past two weeks, parents, teachers and health professionals filled hearing rooms across the state demanding better protections for their children. It’s still not clear, though, if decisionmakers are listening.

I attended one of the recent hearings in Sacramento hosted by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. As the father of a 3-year-old, I couldn’t help but be moved by the parents who came to share their stories of pesticide exposure.

I met folks from nearby places like Courtland, Stockton and Woodland — and those who traveled from much further away. And there was a theme to their stories. Their children attend schools near fields where hazardous pesticides are applied — and as a result, these kids are struggling with a range of serious health challenges like asthma, cancer and learning disabilities.

In harm’s way

Far too often, harmful chemicals are being used on agricultural fields right next to schools and playgrounds. And pesticides don’t stay where they’re put; some are prone to drift on air currents, or leach into water and soil.

Speaking to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Jeff Elliott described the situation for his twin daughters who run track at Rio Mesa High School: “They’re looking at workers in the fields with masks on, but they’re just running right through it.”

According to a report released by the California Department of Public Health last year, over 500,000 students attend school in close proximity to pesticides linked to impacts on their health and their brains. And not to be ignored, these are disproportionately Latino schoolchildren.

The current situation is wholly unacceptable. But California officials may be on the right track, if they follow through. Charlotte Fadipe, a spokesperson from the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, said: “We need a standardized, minimum set of rules.” 

Yes we do. And children’s health advocates, including nurses and teachers, have been clear that — at minimum — new rules must include no-spray buffers around schools and the elimination of outdated, drift-prone application methods near schools.

D for Drift

What’s increasingly evident is that pesticides are drifting onto and near schools. In addition to first-hand accounts, state monitors recently detected pesticides in the air at concerning levels on school campuses, including the cancer-causing fumigant Telone (1,3-D) at Rio Mesa High School in Ventura County and Ohlone Elementary in Monterey County.

Volatile and gaseous pesticides are injected into the ground as fumigants, applied by air blasters or —and it’s hard to believe this is still true — sprayed by aircraft. Given their chemistry and outdated application methods, fumigants can travel great distances and persist in the air for days, if not weeks.

Susan Kegley, PhD, a chemist with the Pesticide Research Institute, described it this way to the Sacramento Bee:

“Pesticides sprayed aerially can easily be carried off by winds and can linger for three to four days. They can drift into the schoolyard and get on the swing set or the picnic table. There’s still risk of exposure.”

Ag innovation zones

Beyond putting stronger restrictions in place, officials need to show leadership by working across departments and agencies to find opportunities that demonstrate successful healthy, sustainable and organic farming near schools.

Marshaling support from leading academic centers to pilot successful farms, there are opportunities to connect to breeding programs, support healthy soils development, purchase new technologies and implement new practices. And these must be underscored sharing lessons learned with other farmers. Developing ag innovations zones like this in California would cement state leadership in the sector and showcase possibilities for other states.

Earlier this week, a leading public health organization issued a report documenting how pesticides and other contaminants are harming California’s children — and costing California billions of dollars. While my son doesn’t attend a school near agricultural fields, we’re a few years off from school, he may in the future. As parents and teachers and policymakers, we owe it to all school children, present and future, to protect their potential — and our state’s potential — for future success.

Take action» In honor of Father’s Day, send a message to the head of DPR, Brian Leahy, encouraging him to protect our children from harmful pesticides and support agricultural innovation.

Picture of Paul Towers

Paul Towers

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