(Beyond Pesticides, January 8, 2018) With a long-documented history of children’s exposure to pesticides that drift from agricultural fields to school yards, California’s new regulations establishing no-spray buffers took effort January 1, as labor and public health groups acknowledged the progress and inadequacy of the measure. The new rule, DPR 16-004 Pesticide Use Near Schoolsites, adopted by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), 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. The new rule was announced in November, 2017.
Advocates say the new rules fail to address persistent low-level exposures associated with the use of the pesticides near schools, which are in agricultural areas that are disproportionately Latino and from farmworker families. There is continuing concern about children’s exposure to hazardous pesticides because children use school grounds after school hours and on weekends and residues from drift may remain on school grounds. Many pesticides used are persistent and systemic, lingering in the air and on surfaces long after they are applied. In fact, 2016 air monitoring data found pesticide residues at levels more than 18 times federal standards on the campus of Shafter High School in Kern County.
After two years of contentious debate, and more than 19,000 public comments, hearings and workshops, DPR, a division of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, adopted the regulation. DPR invited public comment on the regulation in October, 2017. The regulations also provide annual notification to schools and day-care facilities of pesticides expected to be used within quarter mile of the schools by April 30. However, there are concerns that the notification provisions are not adequate to protect the vulnerable because of the inability to avoid exposure. The law will affect about 4,100 public schools and licensed child day-care facilities and approximately 2,500 growers.
DPR notes that the state has some of the most restrictive pesticide regulations in the country, but population growth has created a growing number of situations where schools and day-care facilities are located near or directly adjacent to working farms, increasing the potential for unintended exposures to pesticides. Many counties have adopted local rules related to pesticide applications near schools and day-care centers, but until now, there was no consistent, statewide standard. Now, DPR states the new regulations will allow schools, growers and county agricultural commissioners “to devise alternative application restrictions that provide an equal or greater level of protection to those provided by the regulation.”
Intense pressure from the industry, resulted in a weakening of the draft proposed regulation. For example, the original proposal required growers give schools 48-hour notice of any pesticide use planned within a quarter mile was removed from the final regulation, leaving only the requirement to provide general notice to schools of possible pesticide use over the year. At that time, concerned parents and advocates said it was unacceptable for DPR to water down already insufficient protections.
While the quarter mile buffer zone creates a standard across the entire state, scientific evidence and recent incidents in the state point to a need for a much larger buffer zone. In spring 2017, dozens of farmworkers were harmed when pesticides, including the controversial chlorpyrifos, drifted more than half a mile from the application site.
A 2014 California Department of Public Health (CDPH) report on pesticide use near schools revealed that there are 140 highly hazardous pesticides associated with cancer, reproductive and developmental harm and damage to the nervous system used in close proximity to schools; over 118,000 students attend school in close proximity to the heaviest use of pesticides; and Latino schoolchildren are 91% more likely than white students to be exposed to the highest levels of hazardous pesticides.
Children exposed to high levels of pesticides like the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos have developmental delays, attention problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder problems, and pervasive developmental disorders. Most recently, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, analyzing 500,000 birth observations, report that exposure to pesticides as a result of living in the agriculturally dominated San Joaquin Valley increases the risk of giving birth to a baby with abnormalities. A 2014 study conducted by the UC Davis Mind Institute also found that pregnant women who lived within a mile of fields where chlorpyrifos was sprayed more than tripled their chances of giving birth to a child with autism. Additionally, the UC Berkeley CHAMACOS team, studying organophosphate impacts on women and children in the Salinas Valley, found that every 522 pounds of combined organophosphate pesticide applications within one kilometer of a pregnant woman’s home correlates with a two point IQ loss in her children at seven years old. A 2016 study published in The Lancet estimated that organophosphate pesticide exposure, insecticides often used for agricultural purposes, resulted in 1.8 million lost IQ points, and 7.5 thousand intellectual disability cases annually at an estimated cost of $44.7 billion each year. Of that $44.7 billion, roughly $350 million in costs can be attributed to California, proportionately.
Although California’s statewide regulation is a start, its numerous shortcomings demonstrate the clear and present need to transition to least-toxic alternatives, and to eventually phase-out chemical-intensive agriculture. It is not enough to simply prohibit spraying toxic chemicals near schools “at certain times.” Dosing fields with hazardous agricultural pesticides must become a thing of the past. A wide variety of alternative practices and products are available to assist growers in preventing pest problems before they start. Organic agriculture, which requires farmers to improve soil health and craft an organic system plan to guide pest control decisions, represents a viable path forward for agriculture in California and beyond.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.