Op-ed: Let’s Keep Up the Momentum on Pesticide Safety Wins

April 7, 2017 /

By Valerie Gorospe

Kern County recently said goodbye to Ruben Arroyo, a leader who worked hard to protect our communities from pesticide harms. Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Arroyo moved to Riverside County to further his work on pesticides regulations, particularly around schools zones.

The first steps in establishing new regulations are often the hardest, and we in Kern County have been fortunate to have a Commissioner for the last 8 years willing to take those steps.  I believe I speak for many Kern residents when I say, “Thank you, Commissioner Arroyo, and best of luck in your work with the good people of Riverside County!”

Under Commissioner Arroyo’s tenure, we achieved several major public health victories, including the county’s first buffer zone protecting our schoolchildren and student athletes from pesticide drift.

Pesticides can travel far distances—even several miles– from where they are applied, and for weeks after a farmer uses them.  

Commissioner Arroyo was champion when it came to  listening to his community’s call for these zones eight years ago when he established a quarter mile buffer zone for pesticide application when “school in session or during school sponsored activities when children are present.”

Arroyo’s regulation became the model in the state for better pesticide protections for schoolchildren and was surpassed only by Imperial County, which established a half mile buffer around schools, and a one mile aerial application buffer zone. Now the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has proposed a quarter mile buffer around schools statewide for the most drift-prone application methods this coming school year.

Commissioner Arroyo was also a leader in acknowledging our community’s right to know when hazardous pesticides are being applied near our schools.  His pilot pesticide notification program at seven Kern County high schools began in 2016, requiring growers to notify schools at least 48 hours in advance of any pesticide applications on adjacent fields.  In this case as well, Arroyo’s lead has been picked up by the DPR: its statewide proposal currently calls for 48-hour notice for drift-prone applications within a quarter mile of schools and childcare facilities.

Arroyo’s leadership made its mark in Kern, and now it’s time to build off these wins and take the next steps together in protecting our communities from pesticides.  We fully expect the next Commissioner to keep up this fight to keep our children – and everyone – safe from the health hazards of pesticides.  To protect our community we must continue to be vigilant and fight on.  

This is especially crucial as the Trump administration has already sent strong signals that they plan to reverse progress made during Obama’s tenure around protecting kids, pregnant women and farm workers from dangerous pesticides. This week Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt went against his agency’s own research and rejected a ban on chlorpyrifos, a commonly used pesticide that has been shown to damage children’s brain development. The chemical is linked to ADHD, lower IQs and autism.

Certainly, some of the most dangerous pesticides like this one should be banned altogether.  Another commonly used pesticide in Kern is cancer-causing fumigant 1,3-dichloropropene or Telone.  It is banned in the European Union and should be banned here in the United States. Currently, California is the only state that has any limits whatsoever on its use.  

It’s clear we won’t be able to rely on federal regulators like the EPA to keep us safe from pesticides – that’s why we must continue to take action at the local level. First on our Kern County to-do list: the buffer zones around schools need to be bigger, as pesticides can drift much farther than a quarter mile.  

Second, advanced notification for pesticide application must be longer than 48 hours to give schools, sports teams, and childcare facilities more time to prepare. Some school districts in Santa Cruz and  Monterey Counties receive five days warning for fumigant applications within their buffer zones – Kern should follow their lead.

As the late Cesar Chavez said more than 25 years ago, “The misery that pesticides bring farm workers, and the dangers they pose to all consumers, will not be ended with more hearings or studies…the answer lies with you and me. It is with all men and women who share the suffering and yearn with us for a better world.”

Thanks, Commissioner Arroyo for all your hard work. And now, let’s keep up the fight for our community’s health.

Valerie Gorospe is a community organizer with Center on Race Poverty and the Environment.