Students at risk from pesticides

River City High School in the Natomas community near Sacramento is close to fields that are sprayed with pesticides.

Pesticides often don’t land where they are supposed to. In heavy agricultural pesticide use areas like the Central Coast and Central Valley, pesticides drift onto schools, farmworkers and homes.

One particularly foggy morning in November 2000, parents dropped their children off at Mound Elementary School in Ventura. After returning home, at least one parent noticed that her car was covered in a sticky film. Within hours, the school had called her to say that her child was sick.

It turns out that the “fog” was not fog at all: instead, a cloud of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos had enveloped the school after drifting away from a neighboring lemon orchard, sprayed less than 30 feet away. Dozens of students and staff suffered severe headaches, burning eyes and throats, dizziness, stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Two children were sent home because of pesticide poisoning.

Testing revealed that residues from this particularly problematic pesticide lingered for days after the incident on playground equipment, outdoor eating areas and inside classrooms. Just several months earlier, the US Environmental Protection Agency had banned chlorpyrifos for use in homes because of the risk of neurological damage it poses for children (despite this, chlorpyrifos remains allowed for agricultural use to this day, drifting on to communities close to fields).

In the aftermath of the Mound Elementary incident, local officials in Ventura scrambled to protect children by making new rules to prevent pesticide applications so close to schools. Unfortunately, state laws preempt local laws around pesticide use, and county supervisors were prohibited from creating protection zones around schools.

Seeking to empower local bodies to protect schoolchildren, then state Assembly Member for Ventura, Hannah-Beth Jackson, worked with stakeholders, including parents and growers, to craft a solution. This new law gave County Agricultural Commissioners – the on-the-ground pesticide law enforcement agencies – the authority to make rules for all agricultural pesticides used within ¼ mile of schools.

With their newly-granted authority to protect schoolchildren from pesticides, County Agricultural Commissioners across the state did… nothing. It wasn’t until seven years later when community groups worked with Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo to establish ¼ mile protection zones around schools for all pesticides that the law was put to the test.

Arroyo held three public hearings in November 2009 to consult with local growers and community members about his proposal. With widespread approval that schoolchildren should be protected from pesticides, Arroyo submitted the plan for ¼-mile protection zones to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) for final approval, a formality required in the fine print of Jackson’s law.

In a shocking response that undermined the spirit – not to mention letter – of the law, DPR sent Arroyo a letter in December 2009 denying his request, saying that County Agricultural Commissioners only have the authority to regulate certain, but not all, pesticides within ¼ mile of schools.

Ten years after the Mound Elementary incident, the law passed to prevent pesticide poisonings from drift on to schools has been rendered useless: it has not resulted in one single pesticide protection zone anywhere in the state. Meanwhile, children remain more vulnerable to pesticide poisonings because their brains and bodies are still developing, and pesticides continue to drift on to school sites. Just last week, sulfur drifted on to a school in Sebastopol, affected parents and children.

It’s clear that we need to do more to protect children from pesticides at school. A recent report published by Californians for Pesticide Reform, Pesticide Watch and the Center for Environmental Health shows that amidst the patchwork of small school protection zone rules across the state, there are bigger protection zones for bees and certain crops than there are for schoolchildren in many California counties.

If we had established protection zones around schools a decade ago after the Mound Elementary incident, untold numbers of children would never have suffered pesticide poisoning. When the state creates a clear and consistent protection standard, county Agricultural Commissioners will be able to protect schools across the state from pesticide drift.

Teresa DeAnda is the Central Valley Coordinator, Californians for Pesticide Reform.

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