New Pesticide Rule a Step Forward but Still Inadequate, Advocates Say

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New state rules about the application of  pesticides on farms near rural schools and daycare facilities will take effect Jan 1., following  years of campaigning by groups advocating for teachers, the environment and public health. Yet these advocates argue that the rules still don’t do enough to protect school children and school staff from potentially dangerous chemicals.  

The new rules adopted by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) prohibit spraying pesticides within a quarter mile of schools and daycare facilities on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Advocates argue that the buffer zone of a quarter of a mile doesn’t do enough to protect the estimated 5,500 students, teachers and daycare workers who spend their weekdays at the farm-side facilities.

“At the end of the day is this where we want to be? No. We wanted the buffer at one mile. But, are these new regulations better and more consistent than before? Yes, they are,” said Paul Weller, a spokesman for Pesticide Reform.

DPR’s long-awaited rules apply to fumigation, aerial, ground air-blast, sprinkler and dust application of pesticides on fields. These application methods may cause pesticide drift, when potentially harmful chemical become airborne and and drift from farms into the surrounding communities.

Although activists wanted DPR to require growers to give school and daycare sites 48 hours notice before an application, DPR rule makers refused. And while some pesticides are prohibited for use 36 or less hours before a school day, growers only have to give the sites an annual list of the pesticides they plan to use. Regulators also declined to make the new rules effective around the clock seven days a week.

DPR Director Brian Leahy gave a short but upbeat assessment of the new regulations in a statement to the media. “(The regulations) build on our existing strict regulations and give an additional layer of protection that is now consistent across the state,” Leahy said.

Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the agency, added that DPR is aware that critics of the new rules wanted the statewide buffer zone to be one mile. “DPR did look into this distance, however we did not find scientific justification for a mile,” Fadipe said.

For their part, a representative of the state’s 2,500 growers said they were opposed the new regulations.

“State law already gives schools, growers and county agricultural commissioners the ability to address local situations as needed. This regulation takes away that local flexibility and imposes a one-size-fits-all mandate that does nothing to improve public safety. State and local planners need to reform laws that allow school boards to build schools on land zoned for agriculture. Many concerns could be avoided if schools were located more thoughtfully,” said Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau in a statement.

The rules are expected to affect about 4,100 public K-12 schools and licensed child daycare facilities in California.

Specifically, the new regulation:

    Prohibits many pesticide applications within a quarter mile of public K-12 schools and licensed child day-care facilities during school hours, Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. This includes all applications by aircraft, sprinklers, air-blast sprayers and all fumigant applications. In addition, most dust and powder pesticide applications, such as sulfur, will also be prohibited during this time.
    Requires California growers to provide annual notification to public K-12 schools and licensed day-care facilities, as well as county agricultural commissioners, of the pesticides expected to be used within a quarter mile of these schools and facilities in the upcoming year.

Francisco Rodriguez, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties noted that a 2014 California Department of Public Health report on pesticide use near schools found that eight of the 10 hazardous pesticides most commonly used near schools persist in the air for days or even weeks.

“Pesticides have no respect for the school calendar. A part-time no-spray buffer zone simply does not protect kids from exposure,” Rodriguez said.

He added that the new measure won’t address the ongoing racial disparity in impact, with Latino schoolchildren in California twice as likely than white schoolchildren to attend schools most affected by pesticide applications.

DPR’s air monitoring data for 2016 confirmed that pesticides are present in the air throughout California’s agricultural regions. Air samples collected at DPR’s monitoring station at Shafter High School in Kern County revealed levels of chlorpyrifos that were 18 times higher than the U.S. EPA’s level of concern for pregnant women.

The carcinogenic fumigant Telone was also measured at concentrations above the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s recommended level for lifetime cancer risk (0.10 parts per billion) at the state’s three school air monitoring sites at Shafter High (Kern), Rio Mesa High (Ventura), and Ohlone Elementary (Monterey) over the last five years.

Weller, of Pesticide Reform, said that exposures to even small amounts increase risk for cancers, respiratory ailments, birth defects, and a host of neurological diseases.

“I just don’t understand, how can DPR ignore these chronic effects of pesticide exposure on school kids?” Weller said.

Ultimately environmental activists say that getting California agricorps to agree to switch to safer, non-toxic agents to control pests will be the only way to ensure the safety of students, teachers and preschool workers.

Weller said that day can come, too, noting that half the pesticides used in and around rural schools have already been banned in Europe by order of the European Union.

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