A new state report on the use of agricultural pesticides near public schools counts 30 schools in Sacramento County and 18 in Yolo County that operate within a quarter mile of where pesticides are applied.
The report, whose details were made public Wednesday, was written by the California Department of Public Health. The report looked at 2,511 schools in the 15 California counties with the highest overall use of farm pesticides in California for 2010. It found that counties in the southern part of the Central Valley had the most schools near farms where pesticides were applied.
Researchers said Fresno County had the highest number of schools –131 – with pesticides applied nearby. They also found that Latino children were 46 percent more likely than white children to attend schools where pesticides of concern were applied nearby. Local schools on the list were mostly located in areas near the urban boundary with farm fields, such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Natomas and Elk Grove. Largely rural counties, such as Sutter and Yuba, were not included in the study.
Sixty-four percent of the schools studied did not have any pesticides of public health concern applied within a quarter mile of their grounds.
The report has already proved controversial with county agencies and other state departments that contend its research methods were outdated and flawed, and that the findings don’t account for protections already in place for students at the local level.
But the report’s findings are being touted this week by health professionals who say dangerous pesticides are coming too close to kids.
“This is truly important information that we’ve not previously had,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor in environmental and occupational health at UC Davis.“These pesticides are not entirely benign, and several of them affect brain development.”
One of the substances is chlorpyrifos, said Hertz-Picciotto. That chemical is used in agriculture to control termites, mosquitoes, roundworms and other insects. The Environmental Protection Agency phased out the chemical for home use in 2000.
“Children who are in these schools, attending not far from these applications, spend about half of their waking hours at school, so they’re potentially receiving doses that could be comparable to those they would be receiving at home if the chemicals were still being used in the home,” Hertz-Picciotto said.
Although the report identified schools near sites where such pesticides are used, it did not assess the effect of the chemicals on children, nor did it account for how the pesticides might drift onto school territory, or how children would be affected, if at all, when farmers apply pesticides and other agricultural products according to county guidelines, some of which require application during nonschool hours.
Regardless of those omissions, some health professionals said they think the persistence of the chemicals and their existence in the environment overall are cause for concern.
“In pediatrics we end up giving and exposing children to a fair number of toxic chemicals. Sometimes these are antibiotics and sometimes chemotherapy drugs, but we do it in the belief and understanding that the benefits we expose them to exceed the risks,” said Richard Jackson, pediatrician and professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA.
“The chemicals identified in this report are really of concern in terms of their toxicity,” Jackson said. “To have them within a mere quarter mile of a school is to me very concerning.”
He said that one chemical of particular concern is chloropicrin. That chemical is listed as the most common agricultural pesticide used within a quarter mile of public schools, along with dichloropropene and methyl bromide.
In agriculture, chloropicrin is often injected into the soil but can end up in the surrounding environment during hot weather, said Jackson. Initially, the chemical was used as a chemical warfare agent in World War I. Currently, it is used in agriculture to kill root-destroying fungi and insects.
A 2012 Department of Pesticide Regulation study of the chemical found that lifetime exposure for chloropicrin among workers is a health concern. That study found that the calculated cancer risk for workers exposed to the chemicals was greater than what it considered a “negligible risk level.”
“Children are more susceptible to toxic agents. We’ve learned this over time because they eat, drink and breathe three times as much or maybe more than do adults,” said Jackson. “And their behavior puts them at higher risk since they have more contact with the ground and they are breathing more because of exercise.”
Some agricultural commissioners said they believe that the study is flawed and makes assumptions about how counties safeguard schools near farm fields.
“This report used data that is outdated and was inaccurate,” said Juli Jensen, agricultural commissioner for Sacramento County.
Jensen said that 20 percent of the pesticide application locations were identified by using outdated land use surveys from the state Department of Water Resources, and did not take into account regulations put into place since 2010.
“The report may be a useful tool to further develop pesticide policy; however, it does not measure pesticide exposure to children, nor does it predict health effects. It does help bring focus to the point that school site placement should consider surrounding land uses,” Jensen said.
The California Department of Public Health contends otherwise. The department reached out to the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association in the summer of 2012 prior to conducting the study analysis, through several meetings and webinars, said Matt Conens, spokesperson for the CDPH. “They reviewed the methodology,” he said.