Speakers stress care in pesticide use near schools

Issue Date: June 3, 2015
By Kate Campbell

Potential new requirements for pesticide applications near schools are being discussed this week at a series of workshops around California.

At the first workshop in the series, held last week in Sacramento, farmers said they maintain strong relationships with schools and community leaders around the areas where they farm. Growers said they follow specific protocols and carefully follow label requirements.

Noting schools are sometimes built on prime agricultural land in the middle of existing farm operations, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation said the public workshops will allow it to hear ideas about ways to improve protections for schoolchildren in areas close to agricultural fields, and develop a draft regulation for public review.

Officials said a final regulation is expected to become effective about April 2017.

During the Sacramento workshop, Abby Ash, a Monterey County licensed pest control adviser, said that when she approaches any agricultural field to consider treatment options, the first thing she does after determining a need for treatment is assess if it can be done safely.

"The safety concerns we look at include proximity of schools," Ash said, holding a binder filled with pre-treatment documentation as an example. "We walk away from fields if we feel treatment can't be done efficiently and safely."

She said growers are very aware of the safety procedures related to farming near schools and they talk with school principals and people who live around schools.

"They do this on their own to help things run smoothly," Ash said.

Permits require individual site plans for each application and the plans are turned into the county, where everything is checked before the plan is approved, she said. County inspectors then check the field again to ensure current conditions are appropriate for an application.

"We already have the strictest regulations in the nation and we follow them," she continued. "I just hope the care we take with these activities will be taken into account as you consider creating new regulations."

There are thousands of pesticide applications each year permitted by county agricultural commissioners. Their reports to DPR showed between 2011 and 2014 there were about 120 complaints regarding pesticide use at or near schools. In most cases, no pesticide exposure was found and none resulted in reported harm or injury.

Leslie Garcia, farm pesticide consultant with Technology Sciences Group of Davis, recommended future public workshops emphasize the good work DPR and county agricultural commissioners already do, and highlight the extent to which pesticides already are regulated.

"It would be good to showcase the role of agricultural commissioners and the variation in the locations where they work—from the coastal counties to the San Joaquin Valley to the Imperial Valley," Garcia said. "Not all counties are created equal. Whatever regulations you intend to make, they should have flexibility in mind."

Activists are calling for increased buffer zones around schools and for notifications to be given to individual households up to 1 mile from the edge of all fumigant buffer zones, whether near schools or not. During last week's workshop, some speakers said current regulations only apply to public schools and child-care centers, and said they would like the definition of "school" to be broadened to include home schools, home child-care sites and playing fields. Others said communication about permitted application of crop protection materials needs to be improved.

The Sacramento workshop was attended by a number of county agricultural commissioners, who said they were observing the proceeding and felt it was an opportunity to hear from farmers and ranchers about how current regulations are working.

"What concerns me is that science may not affect the outcome of any new regulations," Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Clark said. "We're dealing with perceptions that there are certain risks and things are happening. Whatever regulatory decisions are made, I would say that if the regulatory package moves forward, it must be based on the best science and data possible."

During the Sacramento workshop, farmers and their representatives asked: If they are following all steps—federal, state, county and international—and, during the past four years, there have not been any injury or illness from pesticide exposure, how would more regulations help prevent what already is not occurring?

Josh Rolph, CFBF federal policy manager, commented during the workshop that as a father of four children, he understands parents' reactions when the words "pesticides" and "children" are combined in the same sentence, "but in this case, rather than adding more regulation, I think this is an opportunity for DPR to point out how well the current regulations are working."

Rolph stressed current air monitoring results gathered from agricultural areas near Salinas show pesticides are well below levels of concern and readings are trending downward (see story).

"Instead of outlining successes, we're here talking about increased regulations that don't appear to be based on current scientific findings," Rolph said.

DPR said new regulations that will result from comments gathered during upcoming workshops will include minimum statewide requirements that clearly reflect the responsibilities of schools and farmers as agricultural pesticides are applied close to schools.

Following the Sacramento workshop last week, additional sessions were scheduled this week in Monterey, Ventura and Kern counties. The final workshops are scheduled June 9 in Coachella at the city corporation yard, 53-462 Enterprise Way, with a session for applicators and farmers at 3 p.m. followed by a community session at 5:30 p.m.

Background related to pesticide use at or near schools may be found online at www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/legbills/regsdeve.htm.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.