(Beyond Pesticides, December 21, 2016) A California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) report of all pesticide related illnesses in the state in 2014 identifies 1,685 cases “potentially involving health effects from pesticide exposure,” combining exposures from agricultural and non-agricultural use. Of the 798 cases associated with non-agricultural use, 18% of them (146 cases) involved exposure in children under 18 years old. The exposure rates are alarming, and only strengthen efforts by local activists in counties like Tulare to protect children from pesticide exposure. According to the report, Tulare County has the highest number of reported illnesses related to pesticide exposure at 78, followed by Santa Cruz County with 67.
The report, Summary of Results from the California Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program 2014, provides a summary of illnesses identified by the Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program (PISP), a program under DPR. Of the 1,685 cases potentially involving health effects from pesticide exposure reported, DPR epidemiologists determined that 1,073 of those cases were “at least possibly associated” with pesticide exposure, representing a 5% decrease from 2013. However, even though the number of associated cases decreased in 2014, PISP did see a 14% rise in the number of associated episodes, defined as “an event in which a single source possibly, probably, or definitely exposed one or more people (cases) to pesticides.” The number of cases associated with non-agricultural pesticide use also increased, up 16% from 2013 for a total of 798 cases. Of those 798 cases, 34% of them were defined as occupational, meaning that they occurred while the affected people were at work. PISP also looked in injuries to agricultural field workers, finding that 148 workers were affected by pesticide exposure in 25 different episodes, with 40 being the largest number of workers injured at one time.
These increases are indicative of a need for increased protections from pesticide exposure for the people of California. Since this fall, public health advocates have been at odds with the state over a proposed rule intended to protect children by establishing buffer zones around schools. The proposed rule, Pesticide Use Near Schoolsites, proposes only limited restrictions for certain agricultural pesticide applications near schools and child day care facilities. It would require farmers to notify public schools and child day care facilities when “certain pesticide applications made for the production of an agricultural commodity near a school site are planned in the coming year and also a few days prior to the applications.” For pesticides applied via aircraft, airblast sprayer, sprinkler chemigation, and fumigation, there must be a minimum ¼ mile buffer around the school or child day care facility. Advocates say that while the move by CDPR is a step in the right direction, it is not rigorous enough, buffer zones are well below the one mile distance necessary, and does not adequately protect the most vulnerable populations from pesticide exposure. The rule does not include private K-12 schools or family day care homes, a move that according to CDPR documents is due to the potential for increased costs to businesses and regulated entities. Additionally, the rule only applies to pesticide application activities Monday through Friday, during the hours of 6am to 6pm. Advocates say that these are unacceptable holes in this proposed rule and must be addressed before the final rule is published.
In Tulare County, the place with the highest number of reported pesticide related illnesses in 2014, more than 75 parents, teachers and advocates for social and environmental justice marched this fall to protest DPR’s draft rules for pesticides use near schools. Led by members of the Tulare County Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety (TCCAPS), the protesters say that the regulations fall short in protecting school children and staff from pesticides that drift from nearby agricultural spraying. Parents and teachers want to extend the buffer zone to one mile, as it has been studied that pesticide drift can travel even greater than a mile away from its original application site. In fact, pesticide particles can attach themselves to air masses and be deposited across the globe. Agricultural pesticide exposure is linked to serious childhood health concerns, including asthma, autism, cancer and developmental and neurological damages.
In 2014, the California Department of Health released a report, Agricultural Pesticide Use Near Public Schools, that for the first time documented the use of the most hazardous agricultural pesticides near public schools in 15 of California’s agricultural counties. The report shed light on the use of more than a half a million pounds of 144 different chemicals that could be a cause for health concerns used within ¼ mile of public schools. Tulare County had the highest percentage of schools with pesticides of public health concern applied within ¼ mile —63%, or 123 of Tulare County’s 194 public schools. Racial disparities were also identified. According to the report, “In the 15 counties assessed, Hispanic children were 46% more likely than White children to attend schools with any use of pesticides within ¼ mile, compared to children attending schools with no pesticide use within ¼ mile.” Even more striking, the report finds that, “This difference was more pronounced with increased pesticide use, as Hispanic children were 91% more likely than White children to attend a school in the top quartile of pesticide usage, when compared to children attending schools with no pesticide use nearby.”
In Santa Cruz County, activists are also concerned about the study findings, which placed them second in the state for most pesticide related illnesses right behind Tulare. Lucia Calderon, organizer of the statewide coalition Safe Ag Safe Schools, speaking about Santa Cruz County, said “it is concerning to us that a relatively small county has such a large proportion of illnesses related to agricultural pesticides, especially in a place where treated fields are so close to schools and neighborhoods, it is crucial that the DPR takes action to truly reduce the incidence of pesticide drift and subsequent poisonings.” Ms. Calderon also advocates for one-mile buffer zones around schools, largely due to a report published in 2011 that found 82 percent of pesticide exposure occurs more than a quarter-mile away from the application site. “A ¼ is not enough to protect from pesticide drift and illness,” she said Tuesday, “to protect public health and make sure agricultural pesticide illness is truly reduced, Santa Cruz County and the entire state need full-time, full-mile buffer zones around schools.”
Beyond Pesticides does not believe that the ¼ mile buffer zone is rigorous enough to protect public health from pesticide drift. Other deficiencies in the proposed regulation include the rule’s limited scope in only addressing public schools, leaving out private K-12 schools and private day care facilities. The time to submit comments on this issue has passed, as of December 9, 2016, but there are still ways you can get involved. Learn more about the dangers of pesticide drift by looking at our fact sheet on pesticide drift. Also, as a food consumer, the best way to protect farmworkers, their children, and rural communities from pesticide use and exposure is to buy organic food in the grocery store. Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience identifies the range of pesticides used in chemical-intensive food production that is eliminated from use in organic production. To learn more about the campaign for social justice food labeling and the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), see Social Justice Food Labeling: From food to table. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides’ Agricultural Justice webpage.
All unattributed positions are that of Beyond Pesticides.