Close to Home: Back to school pesticide concerns

We live in a beautiful region with idyllic farms and open space. This is a right-to-farm county, so we accept the inconveniences from farm operations - strong smells, bright lights, loud noises, etc. It's a small price to pay to live in a rural community. However, being exposed to toxic chemicals from pesticide drift is an entirely different matter.

New information about agricultural pesticide use near schools has been released by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation for about 100 public schools and preschools in Sonoma County. This data shows that many toxic pesticides are being used in close proximity to schools. It also provides us an opportunity to engage in an informed conversation with schools and farmers.

Vineyards dominate agriculture near schools, and the vast majority of Sonoma County vineyard land is managed using synthetic pesticides. Though the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association has a goal of certifying all vineyards “Sonoma Sustainable” by 2019, certification doesn't require vineyards to reduce pesticide use.

Pesticides, including weedkillers, insecticides and fungicides are used commonly by farms in Sonoma County. Synthetic pesticides are long-lasting toxicants in the environment and are linked to many human health problems. Though the top five pesticides applied in Sonoma County are sulfur, mineral oil, adjuvants and surfactants, enough “bad actor” pesticides are being used to warrant concern. The Pesticide Action Network's “bad actor” pesticides are known carcinogens, reproductive or developmental toxicants and neurotoxins - chemicals that should never be used near kids.

The most commonly used herbicide in Sonoma County is glyphosate, a synthetic weedkiller found in products like Roundup. The World Health Organization has said that glyphosate probably causes cancer in humans.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of toxic exposure, including lower IQs, birth defects, developmental delays, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and cancer. Immediate effects of pesticide exposure can mimic allergies or infections and include headaches, difficulty breathing, dizziness or confusion, unusual behaviors and sensory sensitivities.

It's worrisome that Sonoma County has the third-highest childhood cancer rate among California's 58 counties, according to the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. (Humboldt is first, Solano is second, and Sonoma is tied with Napa for third.)

New state regulations protect children by prohibiting fumigants and sprayed pesticides within a quarter-mile of a school during school hours. Farmers must also disclose to schools which pesticides may be used during the year. These rules fall short in protecting children from exposures outside of school hours and from pesticide drift beyond a quarter-mile.

Pesticides applied to crops, especially sprayed pesticides can drift a mile or more. Research has shown that 95 percent to 98 percent of applied pesticides can miss their intended mark. Drifting pesticides are often invisible and odorless, and they can be present for weeks or months.

Though farms and schools aren't required to tell families what pesticides may be used nearby, we think you have a right to know. The data has been made available at

Sonoma County Conservation Action launched its campaign for a toxic-free future last year to get pesticides out of public spaces. Since then, Santa Rosa City Schools and the city of Santa Rosa have stopped using synthetic weedkillers, and Sonoma County agencies have made strides to decrease pesticide use. With new school buffer- zone rules and increased awareness around the dangers of pesticide drift, it's time to start reducing pesticide use around schools where our children may be exposed.

Megan Kaun, an environmental engineer, is on the board of Sonoma County Conservation Action. Nichole Warwick is executive director of Families Advocating for Chemical & Toxic Safety and an expressive arts educator at the Reach Charter School in Sebastopol.

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