Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Access online at http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/article/NE/20171104/LOCAL1/171109862
We’re veteran teachers at Amesti Elementary School in Watsonville. If you look down at our school from a bird’s eye view, you’d see that our campus is surrounded on three sides by strawberry and other agricultural fields. Our school has 620 children who range from pre-K to fifth grade. Almost all of the students have family members who work in agriculture picking and harvesting the food that all of us eat. These are important facts because the children of our farm workers are paying a heavy toll for living and breathing around fields where heavy pesticides, such as chlorpyrifos, are applied. Most recent public data shows that more than 350 pounds of chlorpyrifos have been applied annually within the one-square-mile Public Land Survey section where Amesti Elementary School sits. This is concerning when we add the pounds of another brain-harming organophosphate (OP) pesticide, malathion, and get 623 total pounds applied in that square mile in 2015.
Why is this concerning? In the Salinas Valley, the UC Berkeley CHAMACOS research team has been studying the impacts of the use of OP pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, for more than 17 years and has found correlations between prenatal and early childhood exposure to chlorpyrifos and decreased IQ, increased risk of attention problems and respiratory symptoms of asthma. In 2016, the research team released their finding that each 522 pounds of organophosphates applied within 1 kilometer of a pregnant mother correlated with her child having 2.2 less IQ points by the age of seven.
It’s important to understand the science when it comes to chlorpyrifos. Scientists have known for many years that chlorpyrifos harms children’s developing brains — that’s why it was banned for home use in 2001 and why we need it banned in the fields so farm workers, their families and the surrounding communities will not continue to be exposed to this neurotoxic chemical. The U.S. EPA’s November 2016 Risk Assessment for chlorpyrifos found, among other things, that children are exposed to up to 140 times the safe levels of chlorpyrifos residues on food, that unsafe exposures continue for an average of 18 days after field applications, and that workers and pesticide applicators are not safe from chlorpyrifos even with maximum protective clothing.
The above 2016 EPA Human Health Risk Assessment also noted that the chlorpyrifos air monitor at the Salinas Airport measured levels of chlorpyrifos of three times the federal health risk level in 2014. That year, there was absolutely no chlorpyrifos used within the one-square-mile section that the airport sits in. What does this mean for the air quality at our school, where hundreds of pounds of chlorpyrifos were applied within a square mile?
The health problems caused by pesticide pollution are not limited to our school. When hundreds of concerned citizens showed up to the Department of Pesticide Regulation hearings a few months ago, nurses from Stanford Children’s Hospital made the long drive down to Salinas to testify that the numbers of children they’re seeing from the area with severe health problems is astonishing and alarming. They see firsthand that something is not right and that policy has not caught up with the reality and science that these chemicals are wreaking havoc on the poor and disenfranchised. We have no doubt that, if this were happening in other communities, these chemicals would have been outlawed for commercial use years ago.
With the recent onslaught of attacks on the undocumented, the poor and the environment, it is ever more important to safeguard our future — the children.
Margaret Rosa and Julie Vallens are teachers at Amesti Elementary School in Watsonville.