AP: Children Face Exposure to Pesticides
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 9:05 PM
STRATHMORE, Calif. -- On Grandparents Day, Domitila Lemus accompanied her 8-year-old granddaughter to school. As the girls lined up behind Sunnyside Union Elementary, a foul mist drifted onto the playground from the adjacent orange groves, witnesses say. Lemus started coughing, and two children collapsed in spasms, vomiting on the blacktop.
She and the little girls have since recovered without apparent lasting effects. But an Associated Press investigation has found that over the past decade, hundreds, possibly thousands, of schoolchildren in California and other agricultural states have been exposed to farm chemicals linked to sickness, brain damage and birth defects. The family of at least one California teenager suspects pesticides caused her death.
There are no federal laws specifically against spraying near schools, and advocates say California and the seven other states that have laws or policies creating buffer zones around schools to protect them from pesticides don't do enough to enforce them.
"The regulations are inadequate. In the vast majority of cases, people who didn't follow the laws received at best a $400 fine," said Margaret Reeves, a scientist with the Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco.
The pesticide industry says it is committed to safety, and regulators say they are doing their best to enforce the laws.
"Everyone wants to protect children," said California Department of Pesticide Regulation spokesman Glenn Brank. He said his agency is doing what it can to enforce the law with a shortage of agricultural inspectors.
In the Strathmore incident last November, grandparents said the spraying was being done less than 150 feet from the children. Tulare County authorities fined an unlicensed pest removal company $1,100 for spraying a restricted weed killer that morning. But no action was taken over what witnesses said happened to the children.
Because no one reported the incident as a case of pesticide drift, county agricultural inspectors never swabbed the jungle gym or took grass samples, making it impossible to establish whether pesticide had, in fact, drifted onto the playground.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not keep comprehensive national figures on students and teachers sickened by drifting pesticide.
In California, the No. 1 farm state and the one with the best records, there were 590 pesticide-related illnesses at schools from 1996 to 2005, according to figures given to the AP by the state. More than a third of those were due to pesticide drift, the figures show. Activists say that those numbers are low and that many cases are never even reported.
In California's long, flat interior, spraying season lasts seven months, from March through September. When citrus trees blossom and grapevines climb trellises, Lemus prays to the Virgin Mary that her granddaughter won't come home with her eyes watering and head pounding, unable to breathe.
Tulare County, where she lives, is one of the nation's most fertile farm regions, with more than half the schools within a quarter-mile of agricultural fields, according to the nonprofit Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.