Standing on the edge of his 500-acre produce ranch in Sloughhouse, farmer Rick Grimshaw can just see the sloped rooftop of the Cosumnes River Elementary School in the distance, its fluttering flag a constant reminder of the threat it poses to his livelihood.
Grimshaw depends on pesticides to grow tons of corn every year, but along with hundreds of other California growers whose orchards and fields run up against school property lines, he’s bracing himself for a newly drafted state policy that would limit what pesticides farmers can spray near schools and when. While many parents and environmentalists see the rules as necessary protection for children against the threat of harmful toxins, farmers say the rules are unnecessarily strict and bad for business.
The policy, released in September and open for public comment until Dec. 9, would ban pesticide application by aircraft, sprinkler, powder and gas between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday to Friday within a quarter-mile of schools and child care facilities. Farmers have historically needed county permits for pesticide applications near schools, but the new rule would be the first state policy to put a blanket restriction on such aerial spraying.
Grimshaw’s family has grown sweet corn in the Sloughhouse area for generations. He follows a careful schedule of tilling, chemical spraying and crop rotation that he hopes will protect his plants from aggressive insects such as aphid and thrips. He’s already lost some of his yield because Sacramento County forbids spraying on the field closest to the elementary school during the week, he said. The new law would put an additional three fields, or about 140 acres, under that same sanction.
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The bristly, steely-eyed farmer said he needs the best yield possible to break even at his produce stand and U-pick business, and he’s not convinced that his chemicals pose a large enough health threat to warrant the added regulation.
“I understand – it’s our kids and our grandkids, it’s a big deal,” Grimshaw said. “But I’m just worried. I’m worried about whether I’ll continue in business or go out. … There’s got to be a balance somewhere, but I don’t know where that balance is.”
The debate over pesticide spraying near schools flared up in 2015, when the California Department of Public Health released a survey of 2,500 schools in the 15 counties with the most agricultural pesticide use in California. The study found that 36 percent of those schools – or about 900 of them – had “pesticides of concern” sprayed within a quarter-mile of campus. It also found that Hispanic children were 91 percent more likely than white children to attend schools with the most pesticide use nearby.
Between 900 and 2,000 pounds of pesticides were sprayed near a handful of schools in Sacramento and Yolo counties in one year, the report found, including at Plainfield Elementary in Woodland, Fairfield Elementary in Davis and Bates Elementary School and Mokelumne High School in the city of Courtland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Pesticides sprayed included chlorpyrifos, which is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as moderately toxic to humans, and paraquat dichloride, which the agency calls a restricted-use pesticide, meaning it has “the potential to cause unreasonable adverse effects to the environment and injury to applicators or bystanders without added restrictions.”
At the Courtland Migrant Child Development Center, nestled in the same quiet vineyard town as Bates and Mokelumne, staffer Blanca Sanchez said she was worried about pesticide drift. The 90 or so children in the day care program, all from farmworker families, spend part of their day jumping rope or riding tricycles outside, just a few hundred yards from pear orchards. Of the 13 children Sanchez watches, three have inhalers and several others show signs of respiratory illness such as wheezing and coughing, she said.
Angelina Gonzalez, who makes a living applying pesticides by tractor at a Delta turf farm, said she’s thankful her 2-year-old grandson Derrick has never gotten sick.
“If growers want to use the pesticides that are dangerous for people, they will use them,” she said through a translator, cradling the animated brown-eyed boy on her hip. “Many don’t recycle the (pesticide) containers – they burn them, which is harmful. … The crops are more important than the people.”
In 2012, the state Department of Public Health counted 18 cases of illness or injury related to agricultural pesticide exposure, as well as 149 probable cases and 78 possible cases.
California already has some of the nation’s strictest risk assessment and labeling procedures for pesticides. If the state passes the new policy, it will join eight other states that have buffer zones for pesticide use near schools, according to environmental nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides. Arizona, Louisiana and Maine have laws that prohibit aerial application within either a quarter-mile or 1,000 feet from schools, while other states have 150-foot, 300-foot and 400-foot no-spray zones.
Still, opponents to the proposed California policy say the restrictions don’t go far enough.
Anne Katten, a pesticide safety specialist with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, helps farmworkers who believe they’ve been sickened by pesticides seek restitution. Her organization and others are pushing for a 1-mile buffer for pesticide applications near schools to be enforced at all times.
“We think much more needs to be done to prevent exposure,” Katten said. “We feel there’s a lot of under-reporting, because rural residents are afraid to report, or afraid of medical bills or getting retaliated against at work. And they don’t want to have to take time off.”
According to a 2013 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, children have “unique susceptibilities” to toxic pesticides, and evidence demonstrates “associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems.” The group recommends increased government regulation of pesticide use near children and urges pediatricians to become familiar with the signs of exposure.
Compared to adults, children are more susceptible to harm from pesticides because they eat and drink more and take in more air, especially during periods of high activity, according to pediatrician Dr. Richard Jackson, a UCLA professor who studied the issue at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health. In general, margins of safety for children should be higher and more aggressively protective than for adults, he said.
“Pesticides do drift from where used,” Jackson said in an email. “It is absurd to use them without buffers around places where people, and especially children, might be exposed.”
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation began crafting the new rules more than a year ago with input from farm owners, farmworkers and pesticide experts. The latest regulations, when finalized, will take effect by October 2017.
Farmers have taken issue with other parts of the draft regulations, such as a requirement for growers to give a school or day care center 48 hours notice before any pesticide application. That could pose a problem for citrus growers, who often need to act quickly after rainfall to protect their fruit from rot, said Bob Blakely, vice president of the industry group California Citrus Mutual.
“If there’s rain in the morning they need to spray by the afternoon, in which case there’s no time for notification,” he said. “The regulations don’t allow for exceptions or emergency situations where a grower needs to get in urgently or might lose his crop.”
To accommodate specific application needs, the regulations include a clause allowing counties to make their own written agreements with farmers and facilities, so long as all three parties agree to standards that are at least as protective as those laid out by state law, said Charlotte Fadipe, spokesperson for the Department of Pesticide Regulation.
“(Activists) have said point blank that they don’t want any pesticides in California, and we know whatever we come out with, they won’t be happy with,” she said. “Then there are parents and kids. If you are dropping your kid at school and you see a helicopter you are asking, ‘Is that fertilizer? Is that pesticide? Is that going to hurt my kid?’ … From our point of view, we have to put out sensible regulations that are practical, that are defensible in law. We have to be realistic. We believe what we’ve put out will protect people, and will do the job.”