Parents Allege Agency Bias Over Use of Pesticides


Parents at two Oxnard-area schools joined Wednesday in filing a complaint against the state Department of Pesticide Regulation for policies and practices they allege discriminate against Latino schoolchildren.

The civil complaint, filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, accuses the state agency of failing to consider the high levels of pesticide use--especially the toxic fumigant methyl bromide--that occur near schools where students are predominantly Latino.

The complaint was filed on behalf of parents and children at six California schools, including Rio Plaza Elementary School and Rio Mesa High School north of Oxnard.

The local schools, where students are at least 75% Latino, ranked first and second, respectively, last year in a statewide survey that measured the amount of methyl bromide applied near public and private schools.

That survey also identified schools in Salinas, Santa Maria and Watsonville as being among those closest to strawberry fields where the potent cropland pesticide is injected into the soil.

According to the complaint, pesticide regulators are violating the civil rights of Latinos by permitting heavy use of the fumigant near schools. Anti-pesticide groups want the EPA to force the state to ban the fumigant or lose federal money. Absent that, the groups want pesticide regulators to expand buffer zones around schools to ensure students' safety. Buffers are now generally 100 feet, and pesticides cannot be applied during the school day.

"The more methyl bromide used near a school, the higher the likelihood that the student body is Latino," said Eileen McCarthy, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. "The state's failure to adequately regulate use of methyl bromide near predominantly Latino schools is environmental racism."

The poverty law firm joined several groups across the state in filing the complaint, announced Wednesday at press conferences in Oxnard and Salinas.

Veda Federighi, a spokeswoman for the pesticide regulation department, said the agency takes every precaution to protect schoolchildren--Latino and non-Latino--from pesticide exposure.

California has the most stringent pesticide regulations in the nation, and county agricultural commissioners take extra precautions around sensitive sites such as schools, she said. Those precautions include expanded buffer zones.

"I think the bottom line is that our controls are based on science, and that science is color blind," Federighi said. "For this complaint to have merit, you'd have to accept the argument that children are being placed at risk. We don't accept that argument. We are not placing any children at risk."

The complaint represents the latest salvo in an ongoing battle by anti-pesticide advocates to ban or reduce the use of methyl bromide, an odorless fumigant used to cleanse the soil of insects, mites, rodents and weeds before planting.

Championed by growers as a potent pest killer, the pesticide is especially popular in the strawberry industry. It is also used to fumigate dwellings, a process that has led to at least 19 deaths in recent years, the state reports.

Wednesday's complaint seeks to restrict use of the fumigant, which is poisonous to humans and even in small doses can cause headaches, vomiting, dizziness and damage to the central nervous system.

For an Oxnard parent and her children cited in the complaint, dizziness, rashes and breathing problems were said to have developed within days of pesticide application on fields near the parent's home and the children's schools. One son still attends Rio Mesa High School. the complaint said.

That parent, a 52-year-old former strawberry picker who didn't want her last name used, said she worries about more serious illnesses in the future.

"I'm not only worried about my children, but for all the children at these schools," Maria said. "They have to take these pesticides away. There are other things they can use."

The federal EPA will have 20 days to accept or reject the complaint for investigation. If the federal agency agrees to investigate the matter, it would have six months to complete the probe.

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