California’s draft rules on pesticide use near schools fall short, critics say

California’s newly released draft rules are designed to curtail the use of pesticides near schools and daycare centers, but critics say they don’t go far enough in reducing exposures to children.

The draft rules released Thursday by the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) come more than two years after scientists with the Department of Public Health released a study showing that California growers applied more than half a million pounds of carcinogens, reproductive poisons and other hazardous pesticides within a quarter mile of public schools each year.

The proposed rules would prohibit pesticide applications within a quarter mile of schools and daycare centers on weekdays, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. They would also require growers to notify schools and daycare centers 48 hours before applications are scheduled nearby.

The rules would also establish the first statewide standards for pesticide use, which currently vary at the discretion of county agricultural commissioners. The new rules reflect input from school administrators, growers and applicators, parents, teachers and others through five public workshops held last year.

The proposed no-spray rules tackle dozens of volatile and drift-prone pesticides, which is a good first step, says Paul Towers of the advocacy group Pesticide Action Network North America. “This is particularly important given the chemical cocktail of pesticides, which can have more profound impacts on children’s health and intelligence,” he says.

But the draft rules offer only partial protections, he cautions. No-spray zones during school hours don’t protect kids from pesticides that linger in the air for days or even weeks. They also fail to account for all the weekend and after-school activities that occur a stone’s throw from treated fields. “The rules should create 24/7 buffer zones around schools,” Towers says. “And the no-spray zones are too small. Children deserve a one-mile buffer zone.”

Imperial County in Southern California already has a one-mile buffer zone on aerial spraying, though most counties don’t. Towers worries that the new state regulations could override this stricter rule.

A 2011 study of pesticide illness in 11 states found that 82 percent of drift-related poisonings occurred more than a quarter-mile from the application site, scientists with state and federal health agencies reported. “California data suggest that residents in agriculture-intensive regions have a 69-times-higher risk of pesticide poisoning from drift exposure compared with other regions,” the authors concluded.

Studies have also found higher rates of autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions in children whose families live up to 1.8 miles from fields where pesticides have been applied.

DPR scientists considered the request for a mile buffer zone, says agency spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe, but concluded there was no scientific justification for it.

The Western Plant Health Association, which represents pesticide and fertilizer companies, considers the new rules unnecessary. “To our knowledge, in the last 16 years there have been no incidences of children in schools being exposed in the legal application of a pesticide around schools,” argued association president Renee Pinel in Western Farm Press on Monday.

Yet pesticide drift events have occurred numerous times near schools. In 2013 alone, seven drift incidents around schools were reported to the state’s pesticide illness surveillance program. And as FERN reported in The Nation last year, air monitors at the Rio Mesa High School in Ventura detected the fumigant Telone, classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen, in 2014.

Rio Mesa was at the center of a 1999 complaint filed with the EPA charging that Latino schoolchildren faced disproportionately high levels of exposure to toxic pesticides near their schools, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Parents of Rio Mesa students filed the complaint 15 years before the Department of Public Health’s 2014 study found that Latino schoolchildren were nearly twice as likely as non-Latino kids to attend schools near the heaviest applications of toxic pesticides.

The EPA dismissed the complaint without requiring growers to reduce pesticide use. And the next year, the FERN investigation showed, growers’ use of toxic pesticides near Rio Mesa skyrocketed.

The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed in 2014 that state pesticide regulators allowed growers to use twice as much Telone as state rules permitted, to compensate for restrictions on the use of methyl bromide, an ozone pollutant, even though doing so exceeded health limits.

Latino students and their families continue to suffer the consequences of industrial agriculture’s reliance on toxic pesticides to grow the nation’s food. “The state has refused to acknowledge or even address this racial injustice in the new rules,” Towers says.

The state is accepting public comment on the rules until Nov. 17, 2016 and officials expect them to take effect in September 2017.