Originally published in the Mercury News. Access online at https://www.mercurynews.com/2015/10/01/justin-matlow-pesticide-spraying-near-schools-homes-has-to-stop/
Kids across California are back in school. But schools aren’t the safe havens they should be.
I am a special educator of 23 years who lives in Watsonville with my family, including two young sons, 350 feet away from a small strawberry farm. I and my neighbors live, and our children attend schools, surrounded by strawberry farms that regularly use highly hazardous pesticides.
This is happening in my backyard. Despite some progress, California regulators have failed to respond to the growing body of science linking impacts of pesticides on the brains and bodies of children, and to impose protections for this vulnerable population.
According to state public health officials, more than 500,000 California schoolchildren — and especially Latino schoolchildren — attend school within a quarter-mile of the heaviest and most hazardous pesticide use. This isn’t just the stuff of reports, statistics and figures. Children in my community bear an unfair burden of exposure to pesticides that have long-term consequences for health.
Scientific evidence, including studies from UC Berkeley and UC Davis, documents increased risk of adverse health impacts in close proximity to pesticide applications, particularly for young children. The risks are increased for health impacts like cancer, autism, ADHD and other learning disorders.
Pesticides don’t respect property lines. They drift from where they are applied, remaining in the air after application, and can travel hundreds of feet or for miles in California, and in other parts of the country.
I’ve dealt with these issues firsthand. Last November, I received a notice informing me that chloropicrin — a lung-damaging agent and agrochemical state scientists call “a potent carcinogen”– was going to be applied to the fields near my home.
We set up an independent air monitor or Drift Catcher 15 feet away from my children’s swing set. The levels of exposure to chloropicrin we measured translate into increased cancer risk for people in this community — and this is just from the applications on two fields at one farm. Even more alarming, those levels were found in the air at a distance of more than 10 times the buffer or protection zones set by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR).
This isn’t unusual in communities where agricultural fields, schools and homes are all in close proximity to each other. Parents, teachers and schoolchildren across California need and demand greater protections from exposure to hazardous pesticides.
As DPR considers new rules this fall, it could help protect children and communities from harmful pesticide exposures by immediately requiring 1-mile-wide buffer zones around schools, homes and hospitals. These buffer zones would be areas where innovative California farmers could still grow crops and turn a profit by using least toxic agricultural methods.
No-spray protection zones around schools should be enforced at all times because students, teachers and community members are often on school grounds for activities such as sports when school is not formally in session.
If pesticide use continues within a mile of schools, advance notification should be provided to schools and relayed to the parents and teachers. Counties should establish a website to inform the community of when and where pesticides are being applied. These are important first steps that DPR can take toward protecting our communities.
In collaboration with other agencies and universities, DPR should help farmers transition away from hazardous pesticide use near schools. I think my children, your children, our schoolchildren deserve no less.
Justin Matlow, a special education teacher, and his family live in Watsonville near strawberry farms. He wrote this for this newspaper.