Watsonville educators want stricter rules limiting pesticides near schools
As 10 million pounds of pesticides are being dropped on fields around Watsonville—many of them near schools—distressed parents say their children are victims of “environmental racism.”
A recent study shows that 46 percent of the schools in Monterey County are within a quarter mile of sprayed pesticides, as are seven schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, which includes Watsonville.
“Our farm workers are being sprayed with this poison in their fields,” says Ann Lopez, executive director for the Center for Farmworker Families. “Their greatest dream is to have their children get educated so they can get out of farm work, and then their kids get sprayed while they’re at school.”
On Cesar Chavez Day, March 31, a coalition of teachers, concerned parents and officials rallied at Watsonville Plaza and called for stricter regulation of hazardous chemicals around schools. The group asked that farmers notify schools one week in advance of applying pesticides, prohibit the use of pesticides within a mile of schools and forbid spraying during school hours.
The 2014 study of pesticides near schools by the state’s Department of Public Health found that 64 schools—or 46 percent of Monterey County schools—are within a quarter mile of some form of pesticide applications on agricultural land, and kids there have the highest level of exposure of any in the state. The study didn’t break out Santa Cruz County schools; however, it found that Latino students are 3.2 times more likely to attend a school near the heaviest use of pesticides.
Watsonville residents say they are suffering the same effects.
“Of the 32 school sites we have in our district, about seven of them are located directly adjacent to fields,” says Francisco Rodriguez, a special education teacher for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. “We are really concerned, and not just because of the study.”
Rodriguez says applications of pesticides have increased and the notifications given to schools have decreased recently.
“[In the] last couple of months, there have been some applications of which we have not been notified,” he says. “This needs to be more far-reaching. We need a state law, federal regulations or a county ordinance. It needs to have some teeth.”
The two counties produced about $5 billion worth of crops in 2013, which amounts to nearly a quarter of the Golden State’s overall production.
In 2010, the latest year for available data, nearly 10 million pounds of pesticides were dropped in North Monterey and South Santa Cruz County. About a quarter of the schools in Monterey County are within agricultural operations that apply anywhere from 319 to 29,000 pounds of pesticides—by far the most in California.
“We are talking about thousands of pounds of this stuff,” says Lopez. “The children are being exposed through drift. It’s no accident this is happening in areas where Latinos are going to school. It’s a classic example of environmental racism.”
The California Department of Public Health says Latino children are 46 percent more likely than white children to attend schools with any pesticides of concern applied within a quarter mile, and 96 percent more likely than white children to attend schools where there is heavy pesticide use in proximity.
“The system exploits these people,” Lopez says. “It’s a human rights disaster.”
At the rally, California State Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) said he has begun to work with legislators to draft potential solutions.
“Historically, this has been a problem,” Monning says. “There has been a de facto respect for a 500-foot buffer zone, but it’s not codified. It has been practiced and respected by the local ag community, but the standards can be codified in state regulation so everybody is aware of the rules.”
But Rodriguez says 500 feet is not enough. He describes a scene at Watsonville’s Amesti Elementary School that took place a year and a half ago, where the teachers and children noticed an acrid smell and had itchy eyes. The local fire department was called, and it was determined to be a result of drift from a local pesticide application.
“It caused unneeded panic among both teachers and parents,” Rodriguez says. “If we had been notified, we could have avoided the whole scenario.”
Monning says he has been involved in conversations with officials in the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.
“I’m not prepared to comment on details like the distance of the setback, but it is fair to say we are involved in a process that seems to be moving forward,” Monning says. “The community advocates and last year’s study have galvanized greater attention which has culminated in a commitment to get something done.”
Charlotte Fadipe, spokesperson for the CDPR, says her department is hopeful of getting enhanced regulations on the books by the end of the year. In the meantime, officials for the department are holding public workshops throughout the state in hopes of receiving feedback from the public.
“The basic idea is that while we are figuring this out, we want to know if there are other restrictions we should look at,” Fadipe says. “We understand the concern, but we want to hear ideas about the nitty gritty. Do we notify schools every time? Do we release a schedule at the beginning the year? We want to find solutions that are meaningful and practical.”
Fadipe referred to the workshops as listening sessions that will not only focus on notification, but also seek input on whether requiring additional restrictions on certain pesticides will reduce the risk of exposure.
While the CDPR is working on that, Monning said he has had conversations with other lawmakers about providing incentive to farmers for converting from conventional farms with heavy pesticide use to organic farms.
He emphasizes that the conversation is about creating a carrot for farmers to chase, rather than a stick.
“It’s about asking ourselves if there is a way to incentivize getting more organic production around schools,” he says. “The challenge lies in that to get organic certification you can’t use certain kinds of chemicals for five years. So there are certainly time impediments, but long term this is one of my interests.”
Lopez says this would be the most amenable solution not only for teachers, students and parents, but also for the farmworkers themselves, whom she asserts are the most invisible and voiceless of the stakeholder groups.
“Ultimately, we would like to see no pesticides used in Santa Cruz or Monterey County,” she says. “Santa Cruz County is already 30 percent organic. Why can’t we do that countywide?”
The CDPR will have a public workshop at 3 p.m. June 2 at Cesar Chavez Library at 615 Williams Road, Salinas. PHOTO: This view from the playground of Watsonville’s Amesti School shows how near it is to fields on which pesticides have been sprayed. KEANA PARKER