An Open Letter to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation

4 mins read

Ms. Linda Irokawa-Otani,
Regulations Coordinator
Department of Pesticide Regulation
1001 I Street
P.O. Box 4015
Sacramento, CA 95812-4015

Dear Ms. Irokawa-Otani:

I write to express my concern about revisions in the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) draft policy that have weakened the protection of schools from pesticides. I urge you to reconsider and implement a one-mile buffer zone around schools at all times.

I am sixteen and half years old, I am female, and I am Latina. I am lucky enough to live dozens of miles away from pesticides. I am lucky to be healthy. I am lucky that my family can pay for my hospital bills if I am not. I am lucky that I do not have to go work in the fields after eight hours of school. I am lucky that I do not have to worry where my next meal is coming from. But I should not have to say that I have these things because of luck. These are my rights, as they should be the rights of everyone in the state of California. California and your department must ensure that every child can go to school without being exposed to deadly chemicals.

Those of us who are lucky carry the responsibility of protecting and advocating for those who are not. As I sit in my classroom, just miles away there is a girl like me sitting in hers— but she’s wondering why it feels like her lungs are collapsing from coughing so much, wondering why so many students in her class are absent, why so many people in her town are sick. She deserves every opportunity I have. We have to protect her.

I have been working to raise awareness about this issue and advocate for a full mile for full time. I have spoken to many Salinas locals and I am shocked by the stories I’ve heard, but even more shocked that the DPR has failed to take the necessary steps to respond to this crisis.

No one deserves the pain of having eight pounds of tumors removed from their womb, having a cousin develop breast cancer, and then going to school only to have two students begin dialysis for organ failures, one undergo a relapse in their chemotherapy treatment for leukemia, another pass away from cancer, one have tumors in her ovaries, and several more be absent, under medical care for headaches, intestinal problems, tumors, and cancer. An Everett Alvarez High School teacher experienced all of these things.

And now the DPR is removing the 48-hour specific application notification entirely from its draft policy? I do not understand.

A local nurse told me of an instance in which she witnessed a young girl experience an almost fatal reaction to pesticides. And the DPR’s proposed buffer zone does not include all times at which children are present?

Many nights, I stay at school until 8 p.m.; I’m at school on the weekends. As a child, I was always at school with my friends. If I lived in Salinas, would I not be breathing right now? A nurse told me that she talks to “other nurses from Stanford, and they said they thought Salinas was a big city because of the volume and the severity of cases of children coming to… their hospital.” This cannot continue. These children should be dreaming of castles and ball gowns and blasting off to outer space, not dreaming they’ll survive their next day of chemotherapy. How can we watch this happen and not do something about it?

The DPR has the power to save lives. I would write the cliché “imagine you are in someone else’s shoes”, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. So imagine someone else’s soul. The weight of the world ripping the fibers of the heart of a father who knows his son’s school is next to a strawberry field but does not have enough cash to send him to a private one where he won’t be exposed to pesticides. The hot streams that flow from the eyes of a young mother who unintentionally exposed her twins to pesticides while she worked at a lettuce field to pay the bills. The desperation of a teacher who scans her classroom for empty chairs— signs that those students are slowly dying and the people who can save them are not listening to their cries for help.

It is not their fault. They deserve to know that, they deserve to be protected, and they deserve reparations. Do the right thing. Life is short.

“I appreciate that a ¼-mile school buffer zone applied 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on school days is a significant improvement over policies in some counties, but it is far short of the one-mile safety zone proposed by the vast majority of public comments and backed by numerous scientific reports. DPR’s buffer zones do not reach the current best practices demonstrated by Imperial County: a ½-mile safety zone for ground- and one-mile for air-applications. DPR could and should do more to provide protections for schoolchildren from pesticides linked to brain, nerve, lung, reproductive and developmental damage, as well as cancer.

At the very least, DPR should extend the buffer zone period to include times “when children are present” on school property, as numerous counties already have, such as Imperial, Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Sutter Counties. DPR’s current draft calls for 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on school days, but this would not address many farmworker childcares that open long before 6 a.m., as well as evening after-school events and weekend activities.

I was shocked to read that DPR had removed the 48-hour specific application notification entirely from its draft policy. This is not a “minor change.” Schools, staff, parents, students—everybody—should have the right to know about the application of drift-prone toxic materials, yet it is nearly impossible today to find out about any pesticide use in advance. Again, at the very least, DPR should require County Agricultural Commissioners to post notices on their websites 48-hours in advance of restricted pesticide applications within ¼-mile of schools (or to buffer zone length, should it expand). Pesticide application information is essentially secret today, so web-posting would bring some transparency to the process in a cost-effective way.

Finally, the horrible damage done by organophosphates to children’s brains and lungs are well-known to those of us who have followed the last 18 years of UC Berkeley’s CHAMACOS studies in the Salinas Valley. As with DPR’s policy for dangerous drift-prone fumigants, DPR should require 36 hours between the end of an organophosphate application and the beginning of the school day.”*


Mara Cavallaro

Menlo-Atherton High School Class of 2018
Redwood City, CA

*Quote from a template distributed by Safe Ag Safe Schools

Mara Cavallaro is a senior and aspiring journalist. Her struggle to understand and tell her own story has taught her the importance of sharing narratives and inspiring empathy among readers. She strives to amplify the voices of marginalized communities and is most proud of her articles Full Time: Full Mile: Why We Need a Buffer Zone Around Our Schools (on the noxious effects of pesticides in rural California communities) and “Strength in Diversity”: Where M-A Falls Short (on challenges to full inclusion at M-A).

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