By: Martha Dina Arguello, Executive Director
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In April 2014 the California State Department of Health Services released a long awaited report on the use of agricultural pesticides near California public schools. The staff at the Division of Environmental Health Tracking program assessed a total of 2511 public schools in the 15 California counties identified as having the highest agricultural pesticide use in 2010. The study brought to light many trends in California pesticide use that many health advocacy groups have been concerned over for years. For example, the study stated that between 300 and 29,000 pounds of pesticides were applied within a quarter mile of 226 schools in 2010. This translates to a total of over 500,000 students who attended school within a quarter mile of toxic pesticides used on agricultural fields. The pesticides accounted for consist of 144 different and highly hazardous pesticides.

In the report, researchers defined “pesticides of public health concern” as carcinogens, reproductive and developmental toxicants, cholinesterase inhibitors, toxic air contaminants, fumigants, and priority pesticides for assessment and monitoring.

The loud and overwhelming message conveyed here is that these pesticides are posing a very real danger to the health of California’s children, who are facing daily exposure to substances capable of causing cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, and damage to their nervous systems. Over the past 20 years, incidences of many childhood cancers, obesity, and diabetes have risen dramatically, and science has identified pesticide exposure as a contributing factor to these trends. Additionally, children face the greatest risk from pesticide exposure due to the rate at which their bodies and brains are developing, and the large pound-per-pound dose received relative to adults. Even low-level exposures to specific pesticides can have drastic, long-term effects.

In California, pesticides are applied extensively to crops – in 2010 alone, that number was 170 million pounds. Over 90% of agricultural pesticides used in the state are prone to drifting away from the sites where they’re applied and into nearby homes, schools, and communities. In response to this report, Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR) developed a set of recommendations to improve local, state, and national policies to protect children living in agricultural areas.

The research pointed out the following about agricultural pesticide use in California:

  • Most schools did not have any pesticides of public health concern applied nearby. In 2010, the majority of schools in this study (64% or 1,612 schools) did not have any pesticides of public health concern applied within ¼ mile. For the remaining 36% of schools, pesticide use within ¼ mile ranged from 0.01-28,979 pounds.
  • A small percentage of schools had many pounds of pesticides of public health concern applied nearby.
    • The top 5% of schools with any pesticide use nearby (226 schools attended by over 118,000 students) pesticides applied within ¼ mile ranged from 2,635 – 28,979 lbs.
      The top 25% of schools with any use nearby (226 schools attended by over 118,000 students) had at least 319 lb of pesticides applied within ¼ mile
  • Pesticide use near schools varied among counties: Fresno County had the highest number of schools (131) with any pesticides applied nearby, whereas Tulare County had the highest percentage of its schools (63.4%) with any pesticides applied nearby.
  • Ventura County had the highest number of schools (12) and the highest number of students (13,045) in the top 5% of schools. Monterey County had the highest percentage of its schools (8%) and highest percentage of its students (13%) in the top 5% of schools.
  • Hispanic children were more likely to attend schools near the highest use of pesticides of public health concern. Hispanic children were 46% more likely than White children to attend schools with any pesticides of concern applied nearby and 91% more likely than White children to attend schools in the highest quartile of use.
  • Find the study here and take a look at this wonderful resource (and this one) about agricultural pesticide use near schools from our friends over at Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR).