Pes­ti­cide use near schools spurs push for statewide reg­u­la­tion

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Tony Bar­boza

Rio Mesa High School sits just out­side the straw­berry grow­ing hub of Ox­nard and is sur­rounded by vast fields of the juicy red fruit.

Jeff El­liott’s twin daugh­ters, in 11th grade, are on the school’s track and cross-coun­try teams, and they prac­tice along­side neat rows of squat, green plants. But he wor­ries that the chem­i­cals that help pro­tect the fruit might be hurt­ing his girls. El­liott said his daugh­ters told him at least twice that they sprinted through foulsmelling fu­mi­ga­tion op­er­a­tions dur­ing runs near the cam­pus.

“They’re look­ing at work­ers in the fields with masks on, but they’re just run­ning right through it,” El­liott said.

Af­ter a flurry of con­cern in re­cent months from par­ents such as El­liott, school ad­min­is­tra­tors and lo­cal lead­ers, Cal­i­for­nia reg­u­la­tors are de­vel­op­ing the first statewide re­stric­tions on pes­ti­cide use near schools. The move has reignited a de­bate about how to pro­tect chil­dren from po­ten­tially danger­ous chem­i­cals used to grow straw­ber­ries, al­monds, let­tuce and other crops in the na­tion’s top agri­cul­tural-pro­duc­ing state.

By the end of 2015, the Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion plans to pro­pose new rules that could re­quire grow­ers to im­ple­ment buf­fer zones, no­tify par­ents and school ad­min­is­tra­tors of nearby pes­ti­cide use or limit their use of cer­tain ap­pli­ca­tion meth­ods.

The ac­tion comes af­ter gov­ern­ment re­ports and news ar­ti­cles de­tail­ing heavy pes­ti­cide use near Cal­i­for­nia schools. In some cases, grow­ers were al­lowed to ex­ceed state pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tion lim­its, even as air qual­ity mon­i­tors in nearby com­mu­ni­ties de­tected the chem­i­cals at lev­els above the state’s health tar­gets.

Ox­nard, in Ven­tura County, has been a flash­point in the pes­ti­cide de­bate. Grow­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Cal­i­for­nia’s $2.3-bil­lion-a-year straw­berry in­dus­try are re­sist­ing the push form ore reg­u­la­tion, which they say is based on un­founded fears. They say that ex­ten­sive pes­ti­cide rules al­ready en­sure safety in sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

Lo­cal ac­tivists, how­ever, are de­mand­ing strict new pro­tec­tions from au­thor­i­ties, who they say have been slow or un­will­ing to act.

“This should have been ad­dressed years ago,” said Lucy Carta­gena Martinez, who

grew up in a fam­ily of mi­grant farm­work­ers and now han­dles cam­pus se­cu­rity for more than 2,000 stu­dents at Rio Mesa High School.

Like most states, Cal­i­for­nia has no com­pre­hen­sive re­stric­tions on pes­ti­cide use near schools and does not re­quire grow­ers to no­tify school of­fi­cials and par­ents when they are ap­plied. For decades, the state Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion has left such de­ci­sions up to county agri­cul­tural com­mis­sion­ers, re­sult­ing in a patch­work of in­for­mal agree­ments that vary dramatically from county to county.

Last year, Ven­tura topped a Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Public Health list as the county with the most chil­dren at­tend­ing schools within a quar­ter mile of the heav­i­est pes­ti­cide use.

The county has, for years, been a hot spot for en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice con­cerns, among them fed­eral civil rights com­plaints from lo­cal fam­i­lies al­leg­ing that the state dis­crim­i­nated against Latino school­child­ren, ex­pos­ing them to dis­pro­por­tion­ately high lev­els of pes­ti­cides. Ac­cord­ing to the public health depart­ment re­port, Latino chil­dren in Cal­i­for­nia were 91% more likely than white chil­dren to go to schools near the high­est pes­ti­cide use.

The agri­cul­tural pes­ti­cides used most near schools, and most likely to be af­fected by new reg­u­la­tions, are fu­mi­gants, gases that are in­jected into the soil be­fore plant­ing to pro­tect straw­ber­ries, al­monds, sweet pota­toes and other crops from pests and dis­ease. The two main fu­mi­gants of con­cern are can­cer­caus­ing 1,3-Dichloro­propene and chloropi­crin, a tear-gas-like com­pound that causes skin ir­ri­ta­tion, cough­ing and headaches.

In 2011, the Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion be­gan con­duct­ing year-round air qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing to as­sess chronic health risks posed by agri­cul­tural pes­ti­cides drift­ing into sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Start­ing that year, a mon­i­tor sta­tioned at Rio Mesa High School de­tected lev­els of 1,3Dichloro­propene above the depart­ment’s stan­dards for can­cer risk. County su­per­vi­sors and other lo­cal of­fi­cials were in­censed that they didn’t find out un­til a few months ago.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing com­plaints from politi­cians and school dis­trict of­fi­cials, the depart­ment held public meet­ings in agri­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties around the state to gather in­put for the newreg­u­la­tions.

Grow­ers and pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tors say that new re­stric­tions will place ex­pen­sive bur­dens on op­er­a­tions al­ready con­strained by en­croach­ing ur­ban devel­op­ment and the most strin­gent pes­ti­cide rules in the na­tion.

“To­day’s reg­u­la­tions are work­ing,” straw­berry grower Bobby Jones said at a hear­ing ear­lier this month in the li­brary of Rio Mesa High School, where his fam­ily has farmed the bulk of the sur­round­ing land for three gen­er­a­tions. There is not enough ev­i­dence, he said, “to sup­port more reg­u­la­tions or re­stric­tions based on prob­a­bil­ity or po­ten­tial harm.”

Many coun­ties have in­for­mal no­ti­fi­ca­tion or use-re­stric­tion agree­ments that have been worked out among lo­cal agri­cul­tural com­mis­sion­ers, grow­ers and school of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion. Some in­di­vid­ual pes­ti­cides are also sub­ject to state and fed­eral re­stric­tions on use near schools.

“We need a stan­dard­ized, min­i­mum set of rules,” Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion spokes­woman Char-lotte-Fadipe said.

Par­ents and com­mu­nity groups, cit­ing in­creased risk of can­cer, re­pro­duc­tive and de­vel­op­men­tal prob­lems that sci­en­tific stud­ies have as­so­ci­ated with chronic pes­ti­cide ex­po­sure, are urg­ing the depart­ment to adopt strict, com­pre­hen­sive rules that will bol­ster pro­tec­tions for school­child­ren. They want buf­fer zones of up to one mile around schools and 48-hour ad­vance no­tice of pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tions.

Pes­ti­cide reg­u­la­tors have down­played po­ten­tial health im­pacts and aren’t in­di­cat­ing they in­tend to craft such sweep­ing re­stric­tions.

Pes­ti­cide reg­u­la­tors and the state Air Re­sources Board have col­lected four years of air qual­ity mea­sure­ments in six com­mu­ni­ties and school sites near agri­cul­tural fields, in­clud­ing Rio Mesa High School, Shafter High School in Kern County and Ohlone El­e­men­tary School in the Santa Cruz County city of Wat­sonville. Of­fi­cials say they have on only a few oc­ca­sions de­tected con­cen­tra­tions of pes­ti­cides that ex­ceed health screen­ing level stan­dards and that their as­sess­ments have found that the risk to chil­dren from fields near schools is low for most chem­i­cals mon­i­tored.

But ad­vo­cacy groups say the depart­ment’s testing re­sults con­firm that pes­ti­cides drift onto school grounds and con­tend its sci­en­tific as­sess­ments are not thor­ough enough to con­clude that there are few health risks.

Last year, the Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Re­port­ing, a non­profit news or­ga­ni­za­tion, de­tailed how the Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion had for years been grant­ing ex­emp­tions that let grow­ers ap­ply more 1,3-Dichloro­propene than al­lowed un­der the state’s lim­its. The depart­ment said early last year it would stop is­su­ing those ex­emp­tions.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jack­son (D-Santa Bar­bara) had in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion that would re­quire no­ti­fi­ca­tion of schools and res­i­dents in ad­vance of pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tions, but it died in com­mit­tee last April amid op­po­si­tion from agri­cul­tural in­ter­ests.

In Ven­tura County, where the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try is one of the top em­ploy­ers, some lo­cal of­fi­cials are stop­ping short of en­dors­ing such changes.

Ven­tura County Su­per­vi­sor John Zaragoza said, “My big­gest con­cern is about the ex­ces­sive use of danger­ous fu­mi­gants and the safety of our chil­dren, teach­ers and fam­i­lies.” But he is not con­vinced that ad­di­tional re­stric­tions are needed.

“What is safe for the com­mu­nity with­out un­fairly reg­u­lat­ing the in­dus­try?” he said. “We need to cre­ate a bal­ance.”

‘My big­gest con­cern is about the ex­ces­sive use of danger­ous fu­mi­gants and the safety of our chil­dren, teach­ers and fam­i­lies.’ — John Zaragoza, Ven­tura County su­per­vi­sor

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

OX­NARD PAR­ENTS are con­cerned that chem­i­cals used on nearby straw­berry fields may be harm­ing Rio Mesa High School stu­dents. Agri­cul­ture in­dus­try of­fi­cials say ex­ist­ing rules keep com­mu­ni­ties safe.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

CAL­I­FOR­NIA’S STRAW­BERRY in­dus­try is re­sist­ing the push for­more pes­ti­cide reg­u­la­tion, which grow­ers say is based on un­founded fears about safety.

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