California Forum

Schoolchildren deserve better protections from pesticides

Last year, the California Department of Public Health issued a groundbreaking report detailing highly hazardous agricultural pesticide use near public schools.
Last year, the California Department of Public Health issued a groundbreaking report detailing highly hazardous agricultural pesticide use near public schools. Sacramento Bee file

A year ago, the California Department of Public Health issued a groundbreaking report detailing highly hazardous agricultural pesticide use near public schools, including schools in the Sacramento region. The report spelled out in clear terms that tens of thousands of Golden State children attend schools in close proximity to neurotoxic and cancer-causing pesticides. Yet one year later, state officials have yet to take any meaningful action to protect our children.

I know firsthand about the problems pesticides can cause. During my pregnancy and for the first 10 months of my son’s life, we lived near agricultural fields in San Joaquin County and witnessed the heavy use of pesticides. Later, as we participated in the UC Davis MIND Institute’s Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment study, known as CHARGE, we began to understand there might be some link between this nearby use of pesticides and the neurodevelopmental challenges my son faces every day.

While there’s no proof that my son’s autism is linked to pesticide exposure, the CHARGE study – and other research like it – shows that prenatal and early life exposures are linked to developmental delays. And it has long been established that children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of pesticide exposure, given that they take in more pesticides pound-for-pound, and given how they interact with the world around them.

According to the Department of Public Health report, 144 different highly hazardous pesticides were used in close proximity to schools over the course of a year. These chemicals are untested for their impacts on children when they are exposed to this volume, and effects of exposure to these complex and potentially powerful combinations is also unknown.

Many of the most widely used pesticides are linked to impacts on children’s health and intelligence, including the top 10 pesticides. For example, the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos was banned for indoor use in 2000, but after more than a decade it is still used in close proximity to schools and homes.

Many of these pesticides, especially gaseous fumigants and volatile chlorpyrifos, are known to drift off-site, and have been found in the air of nearby schools and homes by state agency officials and independent monitors. And many outdated application technologies, including fumigation, air blasters and aerial spraying, are nearly impossible to control – even under the best weather conditions and with so-called impermeable tarps.

Given the research and these on-the-ground realities, officials charged with protecting children from the harms of pesticides – especially the California Department of Pesticide Regulation – must do more to protect children and families from chemicals that threaten their future, and accelerate the investment in alternatives.

The Department of Public Health should move swiftly to reduce the use of the most hazardous pesticides, ensure health-protective no-spray buffer zones around schools, and eliminate outdated and dangerous methods of application. For pesticides that continue to be applied outside no-spray buffers, officials should develop better systems for notifying California families. And officials should use these zones as opportunities for innovation, giving growers resources to test new ideas and practices in order to shift away from hazardous pesticide use.

California agriculture is an important part of our culture and our economy, but outdated practices and chemicals are untenable. Modern farming that supports future farmers and the state’s children will require state investments and innovation in ways we haven’t seen. Along the way, state officials need to take steps to protect our shared potential.

Renee Sankus is a parent who lives in Stockton and works in Sacramento as an administrative assistant with a nonprofit health organization.

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