In our latest story, “Fields of Toxic Pesticides Surround the Schools of Ventura County,” online today with The Nation, Liza Gross reports that California state regulators allowed the spraying of pesticides near schools in Latino communities, even as parents sued to prevent it, claiming it was a violation of their civil rights. Tracking a 12-year case between parents, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and state officials, Gross reveals a pattern of discrimination that created startling health risks for Latino children, who face disproportionately high rates of exposure to toxic pesticides.
Gross explains that by 2012, more than half the total volume of pesticides used in the state were applied in just 5 percent of California’s 1,769 zip codes. Latinos make up nearly 70 percent of the population in the ten zip codes with the highest pesticide use.
Nowhere was that inequality felt more harshly than in Oxnard, a major strawberry-growing community in Ventura County, which includes two of the 10 zip codes with the highest chemical use–and where nearly three-quarters of the population is Latino. In 1999, six Oxnard parents filed a complaint with the EPA claiming that California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation had violated the Civil Rights Act by allowing farmers to spray near the community’s schools when classes were in session. Many of the parents who spoke out were undocumented farmworkers who risked losing their jobs and being deported.
As FERN and The Nation have previously reported, the groundbreaking Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study showed a link between farm chemicals and a host of disorders, including asthma, cancer, and lower IQ scores. But proving that pesticides are the cause is difficult, since the health problems can appear long after exposure. No studies have been done of the students in the schools with the highest exposure rates.
Although the EPA is required to deliver a preliminary finding in civil rights cases within 180 days, It took more than a decade for the Oxnard families to get a resolution. Gross reports that during that time, parents were not informed about the agency’s closed negotiations with state regulators.
In 2011, the EPA ruled that state pesticide regulators had in fact violated the Civil Rights Act, and required the state to continue its air monitoring program (which had already planned to install a monitor at the Oxnard school) and produce Spanish-language educational materials on pesticide exposure.
As Gross writes, “the agreement was more striking for what it failed to do.” It did not require less-toxic pest-control measures near schools. Or mandate that the state expand buffer zones around schools. Or change the permitting process to ensure that schools attended mostly by children of color don’t suffer disproportionately from pesticide use. Most important, it didn’t “take advantage of the powerful weapon Congress gave federal agencies to fight discrimination: the threat of withholding funding until state regulators altered their policies to ensure equal treatment for Latino schoolchildren.”