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The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a petition from farm worker and public health advocates to ban pesticide spraying near schools, hospitals and child care centers. Part of the evidence they cite comes from California, the nation's largest agricultural producer and a state where pesticides drifting off the fields sicken hundreds of people each year.
From member station KQED, Sasha Khokha reports.
SASHA KHOKHA: Ten-year-old Nancy Lara and her eight-year-old brother Brian wait for their school bus each morning in front of their house in the central California town of Caruthers, 10 miles south of Fresno. Like many kids on their route, the bus stop is a patch of dirt on the edge of a vineyard.
(Soundbite of vehicle)
KHOKHA: One morning last spring, the Lara kids were waiting for a bus when they noticed white clouds billowing out behind a tractor just across the road. Nancy says they tried to hide inside a cluster of vines at the bus stop.
Mr. BRIAN LARA: We thought the tractor wouldn't get us, but it did.
KHOKHA: The tractor was spraying a blend of three pesticides and it drenched both kids. The bus driver saw the pesticide clouds and pulled over to prevent the 50 other students from breathing in the fumes. She eventually picked up Brian and Nancy.
Mr. LARA: And then I told the bus driver that I wasn't feeling good. Like, I was feeling, like, sick. My head heart. I wanted to throw up and everything.
KHOKHA: School officials called an ambulance, and the kids were sent to the hospital where they were treated for pesticide exposure. They eventually recovered, but nine months later, the Fresno County Agricultural commissioner hasn't issued a fine to the vineyard owner and is still investigating the case. That incident is one of seven pesticide drift cases involving school buses in the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley over the last year.
Ms. MARY ANN WARMERDAM (Director, Department of Pesticide Regulation, California): Any incident involving pesticide drift is problematic.
KHOKHA: That's Mary Ann Warmerdam. She's a former lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau, but now heads the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation, or DPR.
Ms. WARMERDAM: It's illegal and we have to do better. Having said that, we do have sort of the human condition to contend with, and mistakes do happen.
KHOKHA: She says California has the toughest pesticide rules in the nation, and there are very few accidents.
Ms. WARMERDAM: If you take into account the thousands of applications that occur in California every year, we still have a remarkably compliant agricultural sector.
KHOKHA: Over the last few years, an average of 37 pesticide drift incidents a year have made people sick in California. But Teresa de Anda of Californians for Pesticide Reform says most incidents aren't even reported.
Ms. TERESA DE ANDA (Representative, Central Valley, Californians for Pesticide Reform): Everywhere I go to all of the little communities, the little rural communities, everybody has stories to tell about being drifted on by pesticides; that they were outside barbecuing or they were having a birthday party. It just happens so commonplace, people just don't report it.
KHOKHA: Ten years ago, de Anda was one of about 180 residents exposed to a soil fumigant that drifted into homes in the town of Earlimart. The fire department rounded up those who were vomiting or ill at the middle school football field, asked them to strip down and blasted them with fire hoses.
Ms. DE ANDA: When I think back to that night, it was just horrible.
KHOKHA: These kinds of high-profile incidents pushed California lawmakers to pass new pesticide drift legislation in 2004. Among other things, the law says growers must pay medical bills for pesticide drift victims who don't have health insurance or workers comp. So far, due to lengthy appeals and an unclear enforcement process, no grower has paid under that law.
And since it took effect, the number of pesticide drift cases statewide doesn't seem to have changed much. Efforts to introduce new legislation to address the issue haven't been successful.
Growers admit mistakes happen, but say they're making every effort to prevent pesticide drift. Some California farmers have launched a new initiative called Spray Safe.
Mr. PHIL BRUMLEY (President, Farm Bureau, San Joaquin County): Shall we roll? Welcome. Thanks for taking the time out of your guys' busy schedules to come here today.
KHOKHA: About 300 farmers gathered recently to learn about a voluntary checklist of things growers can do to prevent pesticide drift, like putting flags up to let neighbors know when spray rigs are in the fields.
San Joaquin County Farm Bureau President Phil Brumley told the crowd if a drift affects a neighbor's crop, you can come up with some kind of compensation.
Mr. PHIL BRUMLEY (President, San Joaquin County Farm Bureau): But in a case where we're dealing with people, we need to think about human health and safety first, and that's what this is about.
KHOKHA: Growers aren't interested in more regulation, though. They say improving communication with neighboring communities is the best solution. Meanwhile, environmental advocates are hoping the EPA will restrict spraying of certain pesticides near areas where children congregate. The agency is also considering new labeling guidelines for chemicals to warn against the dangers of pesticide drift. It's accepting public comment on both proposals this month.
For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.