Roberto M. Robledo, The Salinas Californian
While the state moves to ban aerial spraying of pesticides near schools, a Monterey County pilot project to provide schools with a pesticides warning system is moving forward.
Both efforts are about a year away from implementation, officials said Friday.
Officials of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation announced a proposed rule that would prohibit growers from applying pesticides into the air within a quarter-mile of schools and child daycare centers.
The new rule is subject to a public hearing and comment period. State officials said, if approved, the rule would take effect by September 2017.
Meanwhile, the pilot project launched in May by Monterey County Agriculture Commissioner Eric Lauritzen and community stakeholders plans to begin operation at about the same time.
Lauritzen said Friday that the project is in the community outreach stage. Consultants are meeting with school officials and parents to determine what kind of information they need when advised of an imminent pesticide spraying.
“The pilot project, which is the first of its kind in the nation, is funded in part by CDPR and will feature a bilingual website for parents, teachers and the community to access information about pesticide use on farms,” Lauritzen said in a news release.
“While state and local pesticide rules have long provided special safeguards for schools and other sensitive sites, the … project will enhance access to information related to pesticide use in the general vicinity of schools.”
Three schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District are involved – Ohlone Elementary, Hall District Elementary and Pajaro Middle School in north county. Each will receive five days advance notice for any fumigant pesticide application planned within one quarter mile of each school. Current rules prohibit pesticide use within 500 feet of a school.
Victoria Sorensen, principal of Pajaro Middle School, said she met Thursday with one of the pilot project members.
“They wanted to know what is the best way of reaching families in terms of communication. I gave her some ideas. It’s a bilingual community, and we could use a better marquee” in front of the school, said Sorensen.
Sorensen said she is from Salinas and can recognize the smell of a pesticide or chemical in the air. In the past, she said she has called the school district safety department to report any potential hazard.
Now, the school receives a written notice when a pesticide is to be used nearby.
Sorensen said, like many people, she is concerned about the effects of pesticides on child development and learning.
Pajaro Middle School enrolls 460 children in grades 6 through 8.
Monterey County has more than 65 schools within the area of pesticide activity, Lauritzen has said.
“We report more than 165,000 applications each year,” he said.
In his tenure of nearly 20 years as ag commissioner, Lauritzen said there has been no incident of harm to children by way of pesticide application.
However, state officials have said that between 2005 and 2014, 34 people were sickened in five cases – one in Salinas – of pesticide drift near schools.
Eleven students and their teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Monterey County became ill in April 2009 when a helicopter sprayed a field of spinach while the students were outside for P.E., officials said.
They vomited and experienced burning eyes, headaches and irritated skin, officials said. The company hired to spray the pesticide was fined $700.
Other cases occurred in Tulare, Kern and Santa Barbara counties, officials said.
The proposed new rule will add another layer of safety for 3,500 schools and day care programs, officials said. The ban will affect about 2,500 California farms and carry fines of up to $5,000.
California grows nearly half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables. It is home to nearly 40 million people, making it the most populated state, requiring stricter pesticide rules, officials said.
Yet even with this most recent effort to build on pesticides safety, some say it’s not enough.
The proposed new rule “falls far short of providing the protection needed, particularly for Latino schoolchildren who are more likely to attend the most impacted schools,” said Californians for Pesticide Reform.
“Chemicals that threaten kids’ health and potential are being released into school environments, with Latino students most at risk,” said Mark Weller, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. “There is ample scientific evidence that pesticide poisonings occur at distances beyond a half mile. And DPR has done little to reduce long-term, chronic exposure. Schools need at least a one-mile buffer.”
Even low-level agricultural pesticide exposure is linked to significant childhood health harms, said Weller, including developmental, neurological and reproductive harms, as well as asthma, autism and cancer.
The UC Berkeley CHAMACOS study of farmworker families in Salinas found contamination from the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos in homes up to 1.8 miles from treated fields. And the California Childhood Leukemia Study reported elevated concentrations of several pesticides in the dust of homes up to ¾ mile from treated fields.
Weller cited a Department of Public Health report that indicated “in Monterey County, Latino schoolchildren were 320% more likely to attend a school near the heaviest pesticide use as their white peers.”
Meanwhile, Lauritzen said the pilot project may offer some remedy.
“By providing more information to the community based upon what we are hearing directly from the community itself, we can build useful and transparent communication tools to help parents and others make good decisions for their families as well as have a better understanding of safety measures in place to protect the health of all of our children,” Lauritzen says.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.