Environmentalists, Teachers Oppose Proposed State Pesticide Regulations

An estimated 500,000 school-age children and kids attending daycare facilities are exposed to a variety of chemical pesticides used to protect California’s valuable croplands – a sector of the state economy valued at more than $40 billion. Photo: Thinkstock

A coalition of environmentalists and school teachers are expressing concerns about proposed state agricultural pesticide regulations set to go into effect in January.

The rules represent the first time the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has attempted to implement statewide minimum protections for the students and teachers working in California’s estimated 3,500 daycare and school facilities located adjacent to agriculture fields. An estimated 500,000 school-age children and kids attending daycare facilities are exposed to a variety of chemical pesticides used to protect California’s valuable croplands – a sector of the state economy valued at more than $40 billion.

But environmental activists and school teachers say the DPR’s proposal don’t go anywhere near far enough in terms of protecting those who attend and work in such schools.

According to the DPR, the main points of the proposed regulations are designed to:

  • Ban growers from making certain pesticide applications near school sites and daycare facilities Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. within a quarter mile of the facility.
  • Relieve growers with fields within a quarter mile of a school or day care site of the obligation to provide those sites with 48 hours’ notice before a pesticide application is contemplated.
  • Require growers to provide annual notification to school and daycare sites of the pesticides they expect to use on fields located within quarter mile of such sites.
  • Clarify the definition of “school or daycare site.” The new regulations do not apply to school buses or vehicles not on school property, but County Agricultural Commissioners may identify an adjacent park used regularly by schools on the weekdays as part of a school site.

The regulations are scheduled to first go before an administrative law judge for review sometime in October. If approved by the judge the regulations will go into effect Jan. 1, agency officials said.

Chief among the complaints from the Pesticide Action Network and the California Federation of Teachers is the DPR’s proposed buffer zone around school sites and daycare centers. They say it should be a mile – and not a quarter mile as proposed by the agency. The activists also say school bus stops and known school routes should also be protected by one-mile buffers.

According to DPR Director Brian Leahy the regulations are designed to safeguard those in the facilities from short-term, acute exposure from a variety of known pesticides, several of which have been determined to be carcinogenic. DPR officials admit that the focus of the new regulations is on acute exposures to pesticides, not long term chronic effects. They say there are other state regulations that address long-term exposure.

“We believe this regulation will provide Californians with probably the most robust protection in the nation for schoolchildren when agricultural pesticides are applied near their school,” Leahy said in a public statement released earlier this year. “It simply makes it more difficult to create an unacceptable pesticide hazard at a school site.”

Paul Towers, spokesman for the Oakland-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN), said DPR’s proposal are unacceptable because they weaken not strengthen pesticide exposure to children and teachers. “These regulations offer nothing more than an illusion of protection,” Towers said.

DPR’s proposal to eliminate the current 48-hour notice requirement before pesticides are applied to croplands near school or daycare facilities is also troubling, Towers said. Parents can’t take their children out of school or daycare to avoid potential exposure unless they are notified of nearby pesticide applications, he said.

DPR officials say they will still require 48-hour notification on pesticide applications that are not included on the annual notification.

Towers said the proposed regulations not only run counter to the will of teachers and activists, they also run counter to the demands of hundreds of community members who have spoken at hearings over the past three years urging the DPR to take aggressive action on chronic exposures that have been linked to cancer, asthma, autism, IQ loss and a host of other illnesses.

In an email, DPR spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe, countered that the department’s decision to drop the 48-hour notice was also the product of public input – in this case input from school administrators who expressed concerns over the potential liabilities to their school districts that could result from the short-term noticing.

According to a letter to the agency from California Federation of Teachers (CFT) President Joshua Pechthalt, the chief concern about pesticide exposure is chronic, long term exposure. The CFT is an employee union representing 120,000 K-12 teachers, classified school employees and community college and CSU lecturers.

And both PAN and CFT said they are disappointed by what they call “a lack of leadership” to push for the transition away from the current toxic menu of pesticide products being used by farmers.

“The real solution, ultimately, is for state regulators to push for the development and use of effective non-toxic alternative pesticides. We cannot any longer endanger the safety of those that attend and work in our rural schools,” said Francisco Rodriguez, a CFT vice president and teacher in the rural Pajaro Unified School District.

PAN and CFT said that at this point they are hoping that the regulations the agency submits to the administrative law judge in October will include at least some of the changes they have been urging.

Absent any revisions to the proposed regulations, coalition leaders said they will take some comfort in that at least there will be a statewide set of regulations on the books, which they could then try to modify through legislative or legal action.

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