FERN Investigation Drives Political Action on Pesticides Near Schools

In April 2015, we took another deep dive into the issue of farmworker health with The Nation. Liza Gross’s unsettling piece, “Fields of Toxic Pesticides Surround the Schools of Ventura County,” revealed how California’s Latino communities—and the public schools they attend—are disproportionately dosed with pesticides, many of which are linked to a range of health problems. The piece took off, rising to No. 3 on The Nation’s most-read stories list and staying there for three days. It lit up on social media, too, with nearly 5,000 shares that included high praise from the likes of Michael Pollan, Anna Lappé, Mother Jones columnist Tom Philpott, Guardian business writer Marc Gunther, Silk (the soy milk company), the Institute for Non-profit News (formerly the Investigative News Network), and UC Berkeley News. The story later earned an investigative reporting award from the Association of Health Care Journalists.

But that was just the beginning. Gross’s piece shook the political timber in California and beyond, with advocates like Paul Towers at the Pesticide Action Network and Tracey Brieger at Californians for Pesticide Reform asking for PDFs of the story to circulate among legislators, policymakers, and the public. Towers invited Gross to brief legislators in Sacramento on pesticide use near schools, as part of their preparation for a series of Department of Pesticide Regulation workshops with the community and industry. Then in May, state pesticide regulators finally said they will seek to strengthen restrictions on pesticide use near schools.

Gross says an acquaintance at EPA told her that the story was remarkable for having put environmental justice back into the framework of civil rights, and that staff members at the agency who are on the “right side” of the Environmental Justice program were trying to figure out how to capitalize on the way the story “moved the discourse” in a way they hadn’t seen before. As journalists, we can’t ask for more significant impact than that.

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