Parental concerns spur new regulations about farm pesticides near Sacramento-area schools

Mikel MacDonald, 10, left, plays with her friend Anahi Gomez, 10, on the playground of First Street Elementary School in Lincoln. An aircraft spraying an agricultural field just yards from an elementary school’s playground is an unsettling sight for many parents. Due to the proximity of many Northern California schools to farmland, it isn’t all that uncommon.
Mikel MacDonald, 10, left, plays with her friend Anahi Gomez, 10, on the playground of First Street Elementary School in Lincoln. An aircraft spraying an agricultural field just yards from an elementary school’s playground is an unsettling sight for many parents. Due to the proximity of many Northern California schools to farmland, it isn’t all that uncommon. rpench@sacbee.com

An aircraft spraying an agricultural field just yards from an elementary school’s playground is an unsettling sight for many parents. Due to the proximity of many Northern California schools to farmland, it isn’t all that uncommon.

Though state officials say the planes more often are dropping fertilizer than pesticides, concerns about the latter have prompted the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to begin crafting new rules for agricultural chemical spraying near schools.

For the past few weeks, the department has held a series of workshops, including one in Sacramento, to hear from farmers, residents and school administrators on the topic. About 800 people showed up at various locations statewide to present ideas for how farmers can better communicate with schools about upcoming pesticide applications and what additional restrictions might be needed to reduce the risk of exposure for children.

California already has some of the nation’s strictest regulations on pesticide use, but when it comes to spraying farms near schools, the requirements vary depending on the policy of the county agricultural commissioner, said Randy Segawa, a special adviser with the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

The goal of the new policy, which will be drafted this summer and is expected to take effect in April 2017, is to set “reasonable, practical and protective” chemical restrictions across the state, Segawa said.

Concern about pesticides spiked last year after a California Department of Public Health report pointed to 30 schools in Sacramento County and 18 in Yolo County that operate within a quarter-mile of locations where pesticides are used. The report, which used data from 2010, showed that 3.3 million pounds of pesticides were applied in Sacramento County that year and 2.5 million pounds were applied in Yolo. Those amounts place the counties in the top 15 for most pesticides used statewide, but are still well below Fresno County, which leads the list with 27.8 million pounds.

The report found that Latino children were 46 percent more likely than white children to attend schools where pesticides of concern were applied nearby.

Among the most talked about substances is 1, 3-Dichloropropene, a chemical compound used to repel roundworms and listed as a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Also worrisome are chlorpyrifos, a colorless insecticide that has been banned for home use since 2001 for its potential effects on the human nervous system, and mancozeb, a fungicide that has been shown in studies to increase risk of thyroid cancer.

“If I had children, I would not keep them in those schools,” said Susan Kegley, principal scientist at the Pesticide Research Institute in Berkeley. “These are highly toxic chemicals. If you’re applying right up to the property line, it is nearly impossible to prevent drift.”

In Yolo and Sacramento counties, farmers who wish to spray one of the state-classified “restricted” pesticides near a sensitive area such as a school or a day care can apply for a permit to do so through their county agricultural commissioner. The commissioner reviews the request before issuing a pesticide application permit, which, in many counties, forbids growers from applying chemicals during or around school hours or within a quarter-mile of schools.

Yolo and Sacramento growers currently are not required by state or county law to directly notify nearby school districts about pesticide applications, although they often do out of courtesy, said Yolo agricultural commissioner John Young.

Data from the Department of Pesticide Regulation’s Pesticide Illness Surveillance Report show 15 cases of child illness caused by agricultural pesticide exposure near schools between 2003 and 2012. The 2014 air monitoring report, released by the department in May, showed that of nearly 6,000 samples analyzed, 92 percent had no detectable pesticide concentrations, about 4 percent had quantifiable concentrations and the rest had trace concentrations.

While Young does not consider pesticide spraying a threat to the health of schoolchildren, he appreciates the state’s recent efforts to address the many pesticide concerns that parents and teachers voice.

“There’s a difference between somebody’s right to know and a risk,” he said. “For Yolo County, I don’t think there’s a risk at all. But people’s perception is a reality, and we have to understand that sometimes people are uncomfortable because they don’t have enough experience and education.”

The crowds that showed up at the Sacramento hearing last month to push for the new policy felt otherwise.

Rosalva Beas, who works at a YMCA day care in Courtland, said the center is surrounded by grape and pear fields where spraying occurs regularly. She said several of the children have been admitted to the hospital with respiratory illnesses.

“We have children getting sick left and right,” she said. “If we were notified when they were going to spray, at least we could take precautions to keep children inside on those days.”

A similar statement came from the mothers of the Knights Landing Women’s Group, who spoke out a few years ago about pesticide use near Plainfield Elementary School in rural Woodland. More than 2,000 pounds of pesticides were sprayed within a quarter-mile of the campus in 2010 – almost twice as much as any other school in Yolo County, according to the Department of Public Health’s report.

The school, which serves about 300 students, is across the road from a walnut orchard as well as a large field where farmers grow wheat, alfalfa, tomatoes, corn and sunflowers, according to school Principal Armando Olvera. A crop dusting company informs him about the few times each year that chemicals are sprayed, although he does not know when either farmers or their workers spray pesticides or fertilizer. He does not notify parents about when applications are taking place.

Lewis Wiley, assistant superintendent of business services for the Woodland Unified School District, said that all pesticide application near school campuses is done in the evenings and on the weekends to ensure the safety of students and that growers generally check in with school administrators about it. The state policy being crafted would require growers to do so every time.

Regulations for pesticide use directly on school grounds, such as insect extermination in a classroom, have existed since 2000 under the Healthy Schools Act, amended earlier this year. The law requires that schools notify parents 72 hours in advance of any on-campus pesticide spraying and post warning signs 24 hours in advance.

The policy currently being crafted by the Department of Pesticide Regulation could require similarly strict notification practices for farms near schools. A more passive approach could include posting pesticide application times online for parents to voluntarily look up.

David Phippen, an almond grower in Ripon, said additional notification requirements would be cumbersome for growers, who already complete 20 educational hours a year on farm chemicals and safety procedures. His staff typically starts spraying pesticides after dark.

“We go until 6 a.m.,” he said. “We spray all night.”

But knowing what chemicals are being sprayed and when will only do so much to prevent exposure, said Kegley, who has written extensively on pesticide drift. Fumigants, a category of gaseous pesticides that are mostly used for strawberries and are typically applied directly to the soil, can drift more than a mile away, she said. Pesticides sprayed aerially can easily be carried off by winds and can linger for three to four days.

“It can drift into the schoolyard and get on the swing set or the picnic table,” she said. “There’s still risk of exposure.”

Claudia Buck contributed to this report.

Pesticide use near schools

These schools in Yolo and Sacramento counties had the highest amounts of pesticides used nearby in 2010. The amount and types of pesticides used within a quarter-mile radius:



Amount used (lbs)

Type used most heavily


Plainfield Elementary


Metam potassium, endosulfan, chlorothalonil


Fairfield Elementary


Methyl bromide, chloropicrin, chlopyrifos, paraquat

River Delta

Bates School


Mancozeb, carbaryl, paraquat dichloride, Oxytetracycline, trifluralin

River Delta

Mokelumne High (continuation)


Mancozeb, carbaryl, Paraquat dichloride, oxytetracycline, trifluralin


Science & Technology Academy at Knights Landing


Mancozeb, endosulfan, ethephon

River Delta

River Delta Community Day


Mancozeb, paraquat dichloride, carbaryl, oxytetracycline

River Delta

Delta Elementary Charter/Delta High


Mancozeb, chlorpyrifos, malathion,


Esparto K-8


Ziram, oryzalin, oxyfluorfen, iprodione


Zamora Elementary


Mancozeb, chlorothalonil, pendimethalin, s-metolachlor


Madison Community High


Mancozeb, malathion, trifluralin, paraquat, pendimethalin

Elk Grove

Cosumnes River Elementary


Carbaryl, methomyl


Cache Creek High (continuation)


Pendimethalin, s-metolachlor


Maxwell Elementary


Chlorothalonil, trifluralin, s-metolachlor


Harper Junior High


Diuron, paraquat dichloride


Natomas Charter



San Juan

Bella Vista High



Pesticide health concerns



Health concerns



Possible cancer, reproductive effects, endocrine disruption



Cancer, cholinesterase inhibition, developmental and reproductive effects, endocrine disruption



Child development, nervous system





Soil fumigant before planting

Respiratory effects, cancer



Cancer, reproductive effects


Insecticide (no longer used)

Nervous system effects


Growth regulator

Nervous system effects






Child development, nervous system



Cancer, reproductive effects

Metam potassium

Soil fumigant before planting

Respiratory effects, cancer, reproductive effects









Developmental toxicant

Paraquat dichloride


Lung damage, Parkinson’s disease



Respiratory irritation



Nervous system, possible cancer



Possible cancer



Parkinson’s disease

Source: California Department of Public Health

Related stories from Sacramento Bee