ACLU: Valley children – especially Latinos – are most vulnerable to pesticides near schools

Crop duster pilot Richard Deming of Kenny’s Crop Dusters brings his plane in low to spray fungicide on an orchard of nectarines north of Easton in this file photo. The ACLU wants the state to tighten regulations for pesticides applied to fields near schools.
Crop duster pilot Richard Deming of Kenny’s Crop Dusters brings his plane in low to spray fungicide on an orchard of nectarines north of Easton in this file photo. The ACLU wants the state to tighten regulations for pesticides applied to fields near schools. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for stricter pesticide regulations near schools, pointing out that children living in the Central Valley – especially Latinos – are the most vulnerable in California.

Fresno County and Tulare County have the most schools near where pesticides are applied to crops, according to a 2014 report by the California Environmental Health Tracking Program. Fresno County has more schools within a quarter-mile of pesticides than anywhere else in the state, with 131 schools near fields or orchards treated by pesticides, according to the report. Tulare County has the highest percentage of its schools near pesticides, at 63 percent.

While newly proposed regulations would ban pesticide applications between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday near schools and child care facilities, the ACLU says the restrictions are not enough. In a letter to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation on Wednesday, the ACLU demands taking those regulations further by limiting pesticide use near schools altogether instead of just during the proposed time frame; extending the quarter-mile buffer zone to a full mile; and expanding protections to charter and private schools.

The ACLU also points out that students of color make up the majority of enrollment in Fresno and Tulare school districts, and studies have found that Latino children are nearly twice as likely as white children to attend schools near the heaviest pesticide use.

“As currently drafted, the regulations fail to protect students sufficiently and likely will lead to a deterioration of student health, a reduction of classroom instructional time, and a decrease in California students’ overall success. Further, the regulations will disproportionately impact marginalized and vulnerable populations, including students of color,” the letter says. “By allowing growers to continue to spray very close to schools and for much of the day, DPR not only improperly permits this harm to California’s schoolchildren, but also ignores state reports that demonstrate that spraying near schools will impact students of color more than other students in the state.”

The DPR already regulates the use of pesticides on school grounds. The Healthy Schools Act, passed in 2000, requires all California school districts to notify parents and guardians of pesticides they anticipate applying during the school year. Four pesticides are listed by the Fresno County Office of Education as potentially being used at its schools, including chemicals that can cause respiratory irritation, kidney effects and convulsions.

The ACLU says the potential health hazards related to pesticides are serious enough to warrant further regulation, pointing to a study of pregnant women in the Central Valley who were exposed to certain types of pesticides and had children who were six times more likely to be on the autism spectrum.

“For children, being exposed to higher concentrations of pesticides can result in reproductive problems; immune system problems; increased likelihood of asthma; nervous system issues, such as learning disabilities; and cancer, among other serious concerns,” the letter says. “Despite the seriousness of the harms to children, DPR has consistently eluded its responsibility to enact clear and strong regulations by shirking that responsibility to county ag commissioners.”

The ACLU particularly targets Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita, alleging that her office has failed to record numerous complaints from parents of children attending schools near pesticide-use areas and is slow to investigate concerns.

Representing El Quinto Sol de America, a Tulare County advocacy organization that focuses on farmworkers, the ACLU claims that the group found upward of 50 pesticides in two students’ hair samples, but that Kinoshita’s office failed to follow up on the findings. The ACLU also alleges that Kinoshita does not accommodate Spanish-speaking families, limiting their ability to voice concerns.

On Wednesday, Kinoshita called the ACLU’s allegations “absolutely false,” and said there’s no proof the county’s current regulations for school areas aren’t sufficient.

“We haven’t had any problems within the last 10 years. There’s been no incidents of drift onto the schools. This is something that growers don’t see as being based in science, and when we look at the evidence, it’s difficult to see that what we’re doing in our county isn’t working to protect children,” she said. “But whatever regulations are put in place, it’s our job to enforce those regulations.”

The public comment period for the proposed DPR regulations ends Friday.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays