Recent actions by California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation regarding pesticide use near schools throughout the state, the subject of major research studies published in 2014-15, require response.
The heavy use of agricultural pesticide near Monterey County schools and the disproportionate exposure of Latino schoolchildren has been documented for many years in the Salinas Valley by CHAMACOS studies and most recently (2014) by the massive California Environmental Health Tracking Program “Agricultural Pesticide Use Near Public Schools.”
It is of particular concern not only for the fact that children of school age but also younger children, babies and fetuses are extraordinarily susceptible to permanent toxic damage at even low doses of these poisons. About 90 percent of the affected families are Latinos who work as farm laborers, live near the farms and send their children to schools adjacent to treated fields. The major problems of respiratory illnesses, cancers, developmental delays and neurological and endocrine disorders are documented in the above cited studies as well as numerous others. These are civil rights violations of ongoing harm perpetuated on a major segment of the population of this county. And it is environmental racism.
DPR’s statement is attractive but false.
For real protection of human health and the environment, a buffer zone of 1 mile needs to be adopted to protect schools, homes and businesses; the present 100 – 400 foot buffer zones now approved in Monterey County are totally inadequate given the unpredictability and toxicity of pesticide drift.
Local air monitoring tests validate this statement but there are only two monitors, and just one at a school. That’s an unacceptable and misleading illusion of adequate drift monitoring.
In addition, schools and communities located near fields in which pesticide application is a year-round activity need to be given at least one full week notification of a permitted application for use of any pesticide. Already compromised children and their families may not be able to evacuate the area because of financial and child care problems but teachers, staff and parents can keep children indoors to avoid greater damage from repeated exposures.
DPR recently closed its reevaluation of toxic chlorpyrifos by changing its designation from an unrestricted use category to “restricted,” which has little practical effect. In 2014, some 3,100 applications were made in California for use of “restricted use” pesticides. Of those, 99.6% were approved by county agricultural commissioners.
And how did these dangerous chemicals slip through without adequate scrutiny when they first came before this regulatory agency? Because, as with most industry-developed chemicals/drugs and processes, regulatory agencies usually accept the manufacturer’s in-house scientists’ studies without independent review or careful analysis. This DPR announcement regarding chlorpyrifos came just after the long overdue U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press release about considering an outright ban on chlorpyrifos due to its presence in waterways across the country. Wouldn’t that cause a red flag for DPR? Apparently not. The public will continue to be exposed to multiple poisonous chemicals, the sterilized soil will receive tons of industrial fertilizers so plants can get some nutrients, and the food that is grown will get antifungals, weed-killers and numerous topical pesticides throughout the growing period before harvesting for our tables.
Some of us have a problem with this; it’s not the health of the earth or its inhabitants that benefits from these insane agricultural practices but the giants of commerce who are doing very well indeed.
California’s taxpayers need to tell the DPR to devote significant resources and attention to reducing the use of and phasing out of soil fumigants and other high toxicity, drift-prone pesticides and to helping farmers with resources to assist with the transition to effective and practices that have been shown to be far safer. That’s what we pay this agency to do. Right?
The priority is the health, education and welfare of all our children, their families and our earth; it should be DPR’s priority, too.
Erickson is a member of the Safe Strawberry Monterey County Working Group.