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Pesticide Spraying Gets More Attention

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 17, 2007

There was a time when the public perception of food safety on produce revolved around pesticides and pesticide residue. Industry leaders traipsed around the country telling everyone that pesticides weren’t the problem, the problem was pathogens such as E. coli or salmonella. Well, in fact, in the fullness of time people’s attention did shift.

Now there are some noises indicating that attention is again being paid to pesticides, though with a different focus:

The Associated Press has come out with an article claiming that Children Face Exposure to Pesticides. The piece focuses on spraying near schools:

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….

And it is a growing problem as urban sprawl brings development closer to farms:

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.

As suburbs push close to farmland, the rate of pesticide poisoning among children nationwide has risen in recent years, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found that 40 percent of all children sickened by pesticides at school were victims of drift — pesticide carried on the breeze.

And there is some movement toward tougher pesticide controls. For example in Hawaii Bills Call for Tougher Pesticide Control:

Just in the past 14 months, three schools shut down because of toxic pesticide fumes.

“We’ve had children who had to go through the whole hazmat process, and get cleaned off with water because of improper use of pesticides,” said Rep. Kirk Caldwell, (D) Majority Leader.

Clare Apana claims pesticide fumes caused a debilitating brain injury.

“I lost my entire house, my life, my business, my health,” she said. “Everyday I have to worry about am I going to come into contact with a little bit of this pesticide?”

Two pieces of legislation call for tougher pesticide control.

House Bill 1646 requires pesticide retailers to “post warning signs with information on the proper handling, storage, and disposal of pesticides.”

House Bill 1641 “prohibits the sale, solicitation, or receipt of orders for restricted use pesticides to an unlicensed pest control applicator.”

“With these signs and this law, you will be able be able to make a much better choice,” said Apana.

With so much industry effort focused on E. coli 0157:H7, we need to be mindful of what else is out there. It is, of course, not the produce trade’s place to lobby for pesticides near schools but the association of a chemical we use on our products with death and injury of children can’t possibly be a good one.

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