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.
“Sometimes it’s just a fence that separates a crop field from a sports field, where students are playing.”
Brieger hopes the CDPH report spurs policy makers to act.
“This is an important report that shows many children are spending a good deal of their waking hours incredibly close to fields where the highest number of pesticides are used.”
However, the purview of CDPH’s report is limited: it surveys 2,500 schools in the 15 California counties that reported the highest use of pesticides in 2010. It does not assess children’s exposure or risks associated with the data collected.
Charlotte Fadipe, a spokesperson for California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation, says, “While this report may be a useful tool to further develop pesticide policy it does not measure pesticide exposure to children, nor does it predict health effects.”
But Brieger emphasizes that, “What we do know is that gaseous pesticides are prone to drifting from where they are applied, and they can drift long distances and for days and weeks.”
For over a decade, studies have confirmed that children are dramatically more vulnerable to chronic exposure to pesticides. Constant exposure to such pesticides is linked to an increase rate of autism, asthma and permanent brain damage.
Most recently, a study published last March in the Lancet Neurology confirmed the exceptional danger posed to children who are exposed to chemicals.
Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of the report, wrote “During [in utero development, infancy, and early childhood] exposure can cause permanent brain injury at low levels that would have little or no adverse effects in an adult.”
The report also added six additional chemicals that should be seriously reconsidered for use, calling for an “urgent” need to form a new international clearinghouse. One of the chemicals is chlorpyrifos, which was banned from household use in 2001 by the EPA due to the danger it poses to children’s development. However, it remains the eighth most common pesticide used near schools.
Some agricultural county commissioners have been wary of the report. Eric Lauritzen, Monterey County’s commissioner, told the Monterey Herald that the report did not consider the precautions the county takes to protect children.
He told AlterNet that, “It’s disappointing that there was this much energy put into just evaluating existing data and not providing recommendations. I don’t think the report tells us anything new.”
The state pesticide regulatory system works in collaboration with county commissioners, like Lauritzen, to develop a framework to regulate pesticide use near sensitive areas including schools, hospitals, residential zones environmentally delicate areas.
“It would be hard to find a commissioner that would suggest that placing a school in the middle of an agricultural area is a good thing to do,” Lauritzen said. However, he claimed that the current “regulatory program in California is effective.”
California is one of the few states that has a department committed to regulating pesticide pollution. Charlotte Fadipe told AlterNet that “California is at the forefront of pesticide regulation and monitoring. We offer many protections that other states do not and the U.S. EPA does not require, because we are committed to reducing exposure to pesticides.”
Fadipe said that DPR regularly monitors air in several California communities, including near two schools, and has not found any evidence that pesticides exceed their screening levels.
DPR also documents and verifies illnesses that result from pesticide exposure, grants permits for agricultural use of certain restricted pesticides, and enforces existing regulations.
But in response to the findings of CDPH’s report, Fadipe emphasizes that DPR is not able to enforce rules that don’t exist.
“There is no state law that prohibits pesticides application in proximity to schools.”
Echoing Lauritzen, she pointed out that counties try to minimize the risk of childhood exposure by applying pesticides on weekends and after school hours.
Only days before the report was released, the California Senate Agricultural Committee killed SB 1411, a bill that would have enabled counties to restrict use of pesticides near schools. Speaking on behalf of the California Agricultural Commissioners & Sealers Association, Monterey County agricultural commissioner Lauritzen testified against the bill.
Brieger agrees with Fadipe that California is a unique leader of regulating pesticide use. “But more needs to be done. We need more than studying, we need resources invested in creating alternatives.”