Protecting Children from Pesticide Exposure

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Each morning, I help my four children get ready for school and daycare, where I trust that they will be safe. I trust that our teachers and administrators will ensure that children can’t access inappropriate websites or play on unsafe playground equipment. If there’s bullying going on, I trust that a grownup will step in.

But schools can’t do much to prevent a serious threat to children’s health in Fresno County: chemical pesticides that drift from neighboring fields.

Until 2018, at Fresno County’s many schools with agricultural fields right next door there was nothing to stop growers applying pesticides during the school day, even while kids were playing on the playground.

It took many years to compel the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to put a stop to aerial sprays near schools during the school day. A 2014 report by the California Department of Public Health that revealed the extent of the problem finally spurred the state to action.

Among the report’s findings: Almost 40% of Fresno County schools have agricultural pesticides applied within a quarter mile of them, and there are more schools (131) with nearby pesticide use here than in any other county. Year after year, Fresno tops the list for the total number of pounds of pesticides applied, estimated at around 30 million pounds.

Pesticide exposure is linked to a multitude of health harms, including cancer, asthma, autism, ADHD, birth defects, IQ loss, Parkinson’s and more. Children are most vulnerable to those harms while their bodies and brains are still developing. As such, they are the most in need of protection. Sadly, next to farmworkers, children in rural schools are also the most exposed.

The DPR finally implemented a regulation in 2018 restricting pesticide applications that use the most drift-prone methods (such as aerial and air blast) within a quarter mile of public schools and daycares during the school day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

In the six years since the new law took effect, we’ve learned that there are serious problems with the way this important protection was drafted that make the law difficult to enforce. Because growers don’t have to report the application method in a way that matches up with the restrictions, it’s really hard to know whether a given application was illegal.

Likewise, for fields that are partly within the quarter-mile restriction zone and partly outside, there’s no way to know exactly where on the field an application took place. And finally, the rule only protects children in public schools and daycare centers, not the thousands of children attending private and parochial schools.

An investigation into pesticide use near a small sample of schools over 10 months in 2018, including five schools in Fresno County, revealed hundreds of probable violations, but almost none were proven to be actual violations because of the way they were reported.

At one Fresno County school, Raisin City Elementary, there were an incredible 316 total pesticide applications less than a quarter mile from the school—more than one every single day—of which 117 took place during the school day. Of these, 92 applications were probable violations—and that’s just at one small school. In the same time frame, there were just two actual violations in the entire county. Clearly, something is not working here.

A bill making its way through the State Senate now will strengthen the existing protections by closing these loopholes. AB 1864—introduced by Damon Connolly (D–San Rafael)—will make simple but meaningful reporting changes so that what is reported matches up with the restrictions and will extend the protections to private school students. 

AB 1864 has passed out of the State Assembly and is headed to the Senate, where it will be addressed in two committees: Environmental Quality, chaired by Ben Allen (D–Santa Monica), and Agriculture, chaired by Melissa Hurtado (D–Bakersfield]).

Let your state senators know that California’s children are relying on them to fix this law, so that it provides the intended protection from the damaging and lifelong effects of pesticide exposure.

Californians for Pesticide Reform

Who are Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR)? CPR is a statewide coalition of more than 190 organizations, founded in 1996 to fundamentally shift the way pesticides are used in California. CPR has built a diverse, multi-interest coalition to challenge the powerful political and economic forces opposing change.

Member organizations include public health, children’s health, educational and environmental advocates, clean air and water organizations, health practitioners, environmental justice groups, labor organizations, farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates.

With more than 20 years of successful movement building and collaborative advocacy experience, CPR is a unique example of cooperation and an elder among coalitions. Founded by eight organizations on the belief that more can be done by working together than by working separately, CPR now has more than 190 member organizations across California.

CPR approaches the need to reduce pesticide use as a critical environmental health and environmental justice issue, building leadership in communities living on the front lines of pesticide exposure. CPR has a long history of supporting and linking community leaders, mostly low-income communities and communities of color, to successful local and statewide policy advocacy solutions.

Because pesticides lie at the intersection of many issues and movements—from air and water quality to children’s health to reproductive justice to food justice—developing community leadership around pesticide issues simultaneously builds the power of the pesticide movement and all movements for health and justice. 
CPR is launching a campaign in Fresno and surrounding communities to inform affected populations of the risks of pesticides. This is especially critical at this stage in the growing season when the Valley heat, dry soil and air movement combine to create even more toxic air streams. CPR is also building deeper connections and collaboration with local community groups and agencies in order to mobilize families around the need to protect their children and the environment.

For more information and to join CPR’s campaign for air quality and justice in the San Joaquin Valley, contact Cristina Gutierrez at cristina@pesticidereform.org.

Author

  • CRISTINA GUTIERREZ

    Cristina Gutierrez was a farmworker and is a mother of four. She advocates for voter rights here and in Mexico. Currently, she is the San Joaquin Valley regional environmental justice coordinator of Californians for Pesticide Reform.

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