Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Access online at http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/opinion/20150530/sally-neas-ag-commissioners-need-to-protect-school-kids
I teach nutrition in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Every year, I teach hundreds of Watsonville children the importance of healthy eating for a healthy life. I cannot, however, ignore the cruel irony of the fact that, while I teach my students the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, many of these same crops are the source of health hazards via pesticides used in their cultivation.
A year ago, the Department of Public Health released the study “Agricultural Pesticide Use Near Public Schools in California.” The report showed that Pajaro Valley schools are among the highest in the state for highly hazardous pesticide use within ¼-mile of our schools. These pesticides have been proven to cause cancer, reproductive and developmental harm and damage to the nervous system.
On April 1 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Monterey County assistant agricultural commissioner repeated year-old complaints about the DPH report, saying it was “deeply flawed” and that it did not take into account that farmers cannot spray when school is in session and did not determine how much students were exposed to pesticides. In spite of these complaints, there is plenty of scientific evidence that adults and children of the Pajaro Valley are being exposed to concentrations of damaging pesticides at dangerous levels. This happens even when the applications are beyond a quarter-mile away and long after the original use.
Telone (1,3-Dichloropropene), a known carcinogen, has been found in the air at concentrations exceeding cancer risk levels at both the Salinas Airport (2011) and on the Ohlone Elementary (2012) campus, according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation study. The Salinas Airport is more than a quarter-mile from fields, while many local schools are closer.
Chloropicrin, the lung-damaging fumigant, has been recorded above in the air above levels of health concern at a teacher’s home in Watsonville. Last November, Pesticide Action Network scientists conducted a study at a Watsonville resident’s home 350 feet from field applications and found chloropicrin in the air at concentrations more than four times above regulatory levels of health concern even days after the pesticide was applied and at distances far exceeding the state recommended 40-foot buffer zone.
World Health Organization scientists provide evidence that the pesticide diazinon causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma and lung cancer. A third of all diazinon used in California was applied in Monterey County.
The above are only a handful of examples amongst the evidence that our schoolchildren are not adequately protected from health-harming pesticides at school. We don’t need to continue making a risky science experiment out of our children to know that they need better protection. All three of the above mentioned pesticides, choropicrin, 1,3-dichloroprpene, and diazinon are banned in the European Union.
Perhaps the biggest crime in all of this is that we are talking about exposure for children while at school, and developing bodies are more susceptible to damage from the hazards of pesticides. The state requires that children be in school to ensure proper intellectual development. At the same time, being in school could put children’s development at risk.
I work hard every day to provide my students with the best shot at a good life. Despite my best efforts, it is impossible to do so without greater protections from pesticides for our school children. That is why we need a one-mile protective zone — a “buffer zone” — around our schools where pesticides cannot be applied, as well as required notification of schools and homes one week in advance of any hazardous pesticide applications.
There is a precedence for such regulations: the same article that catalogued the state of pesticide use near California schools also indicated other counties have greater protections for schoolchildren, including buffer zones several times larger and required advanced notification of schools. Our county ag commissioners have the power to implement these policies tomorrow. I hope the commissioners will implement stricter regulations with our Pajaro Valley schoolchildren in mind.
Sally Neas is a teacher in Watsonville.