Upwards of 75 parents, teachers and advocates for social justice marched on November 16 in protest of draft regulations they say fall short of protecting California schoolchildren and staff from exposure to hazardous agricultural pesticides, particularly for Latino schoolchildren who are far more likely to attend the most impacted schools.
The 4pm march, led by members of Tulare County Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety (TCCAPS), started from Live Oak Park (600 Laspina St.) ended at the sidewalk outside the Tulare Veterans Memorial Building (1771 East, Tulare Ave.) where speakers from the group were featured at a 4:45pm news conference. The Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (DPR) public hearing on its draft regulation followed at 6pm at the Veteran’s Memorial Building.
Some 60 people spoke at the three-and-a-half hour hearing in three-minute increments.
DPR’s long-awaited draft rules would establish a first-ever statewide buffer zone around public schools and daycare centers in California. The regulations would prohibit any applications by aircraft, sprinklers, air-blast or fumigation on fields within a quarter mile of schools. But the restriction would only apply between the hours of 6am and 6pm, Monday to Friday, despite clear evidence that many of the most hazardous pesticides linger in the air for a week or more. The public comment period for the new rules ends on December 9.
For those in affected communities who have been advocating for better protections for children, the new rules are not enough. Even low-level agricultural pesticide exposure is linked to significant childhood health harms, including developmental, neurological and reproductive harms, as well as asthma, autism and cancer.
“Schoolchildren are being exposed to toxic pesticides that threaten their health and potential, with Latino kids most at risk,” said Angel Garcia, Community Organizer with El Quinto Sol de América, and TC CAPS member. “Our experience and study after study have shown that pesticide poisonings occur at distances well over a quarter mile, while part-time buffer zones do little to reduce long-term, chronic exposure. Schools need at least a one-mile buffer for hazardous pesticides.”
A full-time, one-mile buffer for the most hazardous pesticides is the key demand of parents and teachers from California’s agricultural regions, who point to a growing body of scientific evidence in support of greater protections.
According to a study by state and federal health departments, a one-mile buffer would prevent 85% of acute exposure illnesses, while only 24% of non-work drift illnesses occurred at distances of a quarter mile or less. A University of California – Davis MIND Institute study documented significantly increased rates of autism in children of mothers who lived up to one mile from fields.
The UC Berkeley CHAMACOS study of farmworker families in Salinas found contamination from the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos in homes even beyond a mile from treated fields. And the California Childhood Leukemia Study reported elevated concentrations of several pesticides in the dust of homes up to three-quarters of a mile from treated fields.
“These regulations are long overdue but they don’t go far enough,” said Fidelia Morales, a Lindsay TC CAPS member and caretaker for five school-aged children. “It’s DPR’s responsibility to protect all Californians regardless of race or place, and it’s disappointing that they have proposed rules that don’t protect the community and our schools. As always, it’s low-income people of color who are vulnerable.”
DPR’s draft regulation comes more than two years after the 2014 release of a report by the California Department of Public Health, which for the first time documented the extent of use of the most hazardous agricultural pesticides near public schools in 15 agricultural counties in California. The report revealed that more than half a million pounds of 144 pesticides of public health concern are used within a quarter mile of California schools each year.
The 10 most heavily used are all associated with at least one severe impact on children’s health and learning. These schools are attended by 500,000 students, who suffer long-term chronic exposure throughout their childhood to chemicals known to cause cancer and other severe health impacts. Tulare County had the highest percentage of schools with pesticides of public health concern applied within a ¼ mile – an astonishing 63%, or 123 of Tulare County’s 194 public schools.
The report also documented a marked racial disparity at the most impacted schools. In the 15 agricultural counties studied, Latino schoolchildren were nearly twice (91%) as likely to attend a school near the heaviest pesticide use as their white peers.
The no-spray buffer zones established by the new rules do not apply full-time, leaving advocates concerned about exposure for children and staff on campus after hours and at weekends. Moreover, eight of the ten pesticides most heavily used near schools persist in the environment for more than a week. Applications of hazardous pesticides in the early morning on school days, a common practice, would still be permitted under the new rules.
“Pesticides hang around long after they are applied and the damage from this can be long-term, as well,” said Caty Wagner, a TC CAPS member and founder of Sequoia Mavericks. “Brain-harming organophosphates are applied in enormous quantities near Tulare County schools—amounts linked to IQ loss in children for prenatal exposure,” Ms. Wagner added, referring to a recent UC Berkeley CHAMACOS study in the Salinas Valley.
Health and justice advocates point out that school buffer zones are just a start, and that agricultural methods that cause harm to children and the environment are not sustainable in the long-term. Community leaders from California’s agricultural regions are calling on DPR to lead the way toward a transition from hazardous agricultural pesticides.
“Part-time, quarter mile buffer zones are not nearly enough,” said Margaret Reeves, PhD, senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network. “Policymakers need to provide support and training for farmers to transition to safer farming methods that don’t harm kids. We urge state officials, particularly DPR, the Department of Food and Agriculture and the Governor to make the necessary investments in the future of California agriculture.”
Legislation introduced earlier this year (SB 1247, Jackson) intended to provide financial and technical incentives for growers affected by the new rules was defeated in the Senate under pressure from industrial agriculture interest groups.