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500k Kids Attend School Near Fields Sprayed With Highly Toxic Pesticides

Neurotoxins are leaching into California's Central Valley schools.

Photo Credit: isarescheewin / Shutterstock.com


When you see a carton of strawberries in your grocer’s aisle, what do you think of? If you’re in the United States you might want to consider California’s Central Valley, where 88 percent of the nation’s strawberries are grown. The U.S. satisfies 30 percent of the globe’s appetite for strawberries, so wherever you are, next time you pluck the brightest and most luscious-looking berry from a bowl, consider the practices of the industry that produces this widely consumed delicacy.

Created by the Sacramento River Delta are the fertile lands of the San Joaquin Valley, where one of the country’s most important food baskets is nestled: in 2013 the farmland produced about $28 billion worth of produce. Mile after mile are apple, almond and orange trees, lettuce and artichokes, and strawberries. The 38,000 acres of strawberries here are smothered in 9.2 million pounds of pesticides —most of which are fumigants. Fumigants are injected into the ground to sterilize soil before certain crops are planted. Fumigants quickly become gaseous and are the most likely to waft into residential areas. Wildlife, birds, bees and butterflies die by the millions due to these toxins.

Humans also live, work and attend school near these orchards, meaning they breathe the toxic air in which the pests are drenched.

A new report released by the California Department of Public Health has found that a staggering 505,141 schoolchildren go to school within a quarter of a mile of crop fields sprayed with the top 10 most hazardous chemical pesticides, the top five of which are specifically fumigants. Latino schoolchildren are 91 percent more likely to attend schools next to these highly hazardous fields than their white peers.

The findings have prompted protests. Outside a Salinas courthouse in Monterey County, activist MacGregor Eddy stated, "If this was middle-class white kids, they would have been intervened rapidly."

In 2011, after an over decade-long investigation into a complaint regarding the issue, the U.S. EPA found that the disparate adverse effects from exposure to fumigant, methyl bromide, on Latino school children in California constituted a prima facie violation of Title VI anti-discrimination laws. But little has been done to rectify the disparity, as the most recent report demonstrates.

“The report comes right out and says the pattern of pesticide use near schools is overwhelming discriminatory. Latino children are more likely to have pesticides applied near the schools they attend,” says Brent Newell, the legal director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. Since 2009, Newell has acted as the lead attorney for the complaint that was originally filed in 1999.

Newell explained that while the EPA executed a settlement agreement — which involved two years of monitoring the use of methyl bromide and reaching out to Latino parents — no real steps were taken by the EPA to rectify its 2011 findings.

The EPA only evaluated methyl bromide exposures from 1995 to 2001. It refused to look at fumigants that were replacing methyl bromide after Montreal Protocol and the Clean Air Act called for the phasing out of methyl bromide.

“There is overwhelming evidence that more needs to do be done to protect Latino children from pesticide use in California.”

Strawberries, of course, are not the only crop of concern, but the main fumigant used on strawberries is chloropicrin, which is the single most common fumigant found near schools.

Pesticide reform activists have called the report groundbreaking, but it actually shows what farmers and community members have known for some time.

“If you have driven the back roads of California’s agricultural areas what you see is often shocking,” says Tracey Brieger, the co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of 185 organizations in California that was founded in 1996.