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Pesticide Use Near Schools Poses Potential Health Risks

By Megan Kaun and Nichole Warwick

As our children return to school, beauty surrounds many Sonoma County campuses, with bucolic hillsides and sprawling farmland. Yet, unseen toxicity lies within and around these rural schools. For the first time, data about this toxicity is now available to inform parents and the community.

New information about agricultural pesticide use has been released by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) for ~100 public schools and preschools in Sonoma County, which lie within 1/4 mile of farms using pesticides.

This data shows us that many dangerous pesticides are in use in very close proximity to schools. It also provides us with an opportunity to engage in an informed conversation with schools and farmers.

Toxic Pesticide Use Near Sonoma County Schools

Pesticides, including weed killers (herbicides), insecticides, and fungicides[1], are used commonly in Sonoma County. Synthetic or man-made pesticides are long-lasting toxicants in the environment, linked to many human health problems. Children are particularly vulnerable to toxicants like pesticides. Many are known carcinogens (cancer-causing) and endocrine disruptors, which affect development and reproductive health in both males and females[2][3].

Vineyards dominate agriculture near schools, and the vast majority (around 98%) of Sonoma County vineyard land is managed using synthetic pesticides. Though the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association has a goal to certify all vineyards “Sonoma Sustainable” by 2019[1], certification does not require vineyards to reduce pesticide use[2].

The most commonly-used herbicide by farmers in Sonoma County is glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp.Thirty-seven (37) tons of glyphosate were used on Sonoma County farms in 2016[1]. Glyphosate was listed by California Proposition 65 as a known carcinogen in July 2017[2]. In August 2018 a jury ordered Monsanto, the maker of RoundUp, to pay a school maintenance worker with terminal non-Hodgkins lymphoma $289.2 million for failure to warn consumers that exposure to RoundUp weedkiller can cause cancer.[3] Low dose exposure to glyphosate is also associated with birth defects[4], endocrine disorders[5], and liver/kidney disorders[6]. This pesticide has been used for decades by people assuming it was “safe as salt”. This should remind us that pesticides are designed to kill and should be avoided wherever possible.

Other commonly used pesticides in Sonoma County are linked to serious health effects. For example, the active ingredient chlorpyrifos, present in products Renegade and Lorsban Advanced, has been associated with developmental disabilities and neurotoxicity in children. In August 2018, a US federal appeals court ordered the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos[1]. Other common products like Torino, Luna Experience, Sovran, Rally 40, Goal Tender, and PH-D Fungicide all contain active ingredients considered to be “Bad Actors” (carcinogens, reproductive, developmental, or neurotoxins) by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN)[2]. All of these products are currently used within 1/4 mile of Sonoma County schools[3].

Children are More Vulnerable

Children are particularly vulnerable[1] to the impacts of toxic exposure, including lower IQs, birth defects, developmental delays, autism, ADHD, and cancer[2]. Immediate effects of pesticide exposure can mimic allergies or viral/bacterial infections and include headaches, difficulty breathing, asthma, unusual behaviors and sensory sensitivities, etc.[3] Local doctors like Michelle Perro, MD, author of What’s Making our Children Sick[4] routinely treat neurological and behavioral problems in children by limiting exposure to pesticides in food and the environment.

Sonoma County has the 3rd highest childhood cancer rate of California's 58 counties, according to the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. (Humboldt is 1st, Solano is 2nd, and Sonoma is tied with Napa for 3rd.)[5] With statistics like this, it is so important to examine all potential risks and threats to our children’s health and well-being. The interface of schools and farms poses extraordinary health risks.

The California Environmental Health Tracking Program provides a resource with statewide pesticide use data on a color-coded map. It should be noted that the majority of applied pesticides in our county are sulfur, mineral oil, and adjuvants/surfactants (chemicals that help pesticides work better). However, large quantities of “Bad Actor” pesticides are also being used, and this map provides relative indicators of pesticide loads.

New State Regulations on Sprayed Pesticides and Fumigants

Brand new 2018 CDPR regulations[1] are aimed to protect children at schools by prohibiting fumigants and sprayed pesticides within 1/4 mile of a school during school hours. Farmers must also disclose to schools which pesticides may be used anytime during the year.

These rules fall short in protecting children from exposures outside school hours and from pesticide drift beyond one-quarter mile.

Pesticides applied to crops, especially sprayed pesticides and fumigants (gaseous pesticides) can drift[2] 1 mile or more from where they are applied[3]. Research has shown that 95-98% of applied pesticides can miss their intended mark[4]. Drifting pesticides are often invisible, odorless, and can be present for weeks or months. They travel through the watershed, and in the dust in the air. Air monitoring data from around the country shows that pesticide levels in the air can exceed levels considered safe by U.S. Government agencies, even when pesticides are applied correctly[5].

Parents Have the Right to Know

Though new CDPR regulations require farms to tell schools which chemicals may be used, schools are not required to notify families. Schools are, however, required to tell families about their own pesticide use.

We believe parents have a right to know what chemicals may be drifting into their children’s schoolyards as well. Based on public records requests, we are making the new data accessible at the website below:

Knowledge is power. If your school is one of the impacted schools in the County, review the data and see if any particularly toxic pesticides are being used nearby (e.g. PAN “Bad Actors”[6]). The Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s office is responsible for ensuring that farmers comply with the new regulations. They can also set up a mediated discussion between your school community and the neighboring farms.

Driving a Toxic Free Future

Sonoma County Conservation Action launched its campaign for aToxic-Free Future last year with the mission to eliminate pesticides from schools, parks, and other public spaces. TheToxic-Free Future Campaign is comprised of individuals and non-profit organizations, including Daily Acts, Families Advocating for Chemical & Toxics Safety (FACTS), North Bay Organizing Project, and others.

Because of this work, Santa Rosa City Schools developed new landscape maintenance protocols that do not allow for synthetic weed killers in January 2018. In August 2018 the Santa Rosa City Council voted to have their landscape contractor use only Organic Materials Research Center (OMRI) products. In September 2018 Windsor’s Town Council unanimously voted to ban all synthetic pesticides on city-owned lands! It is clear that the public does not want synthetic pesticides used near where they live, work, and play, and change is happening.

With the new school buffer zone rules and increased awareness around the dangers of pesticide drift, it’s time to start working toward reducing pesticide use, especially around public places, like schools, where our children may be exposed.

Megan Kaun is an Environmental Engineer with experience in water resources, environmental modeling, and remediation. She spearheaded SCCA’s Toxic Free Future campaign and serves on its board.

Nichole Warwick, MA, is the Founding Executive Director of Families Advocating for Chemical & Toxics Safety (FACTS), the Environmental Health Program Manager for Daily Acts, a Board of Director Member and Secretary for Ceres Community Project, and a Person-Centered Expressive Arts Educator/Educational Therapist for the Reach Charter School.

[1] Accessed July 17, 2018.

[2] International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). 2017. International Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs, Volumes 1-120.

[3] Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). 2017. Proposition 65.





[8] Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). 2017. Proposition 65.


[10] Paganelli A., Glyphosate-based herbicides produce teratogenic effects on vertebrates by imparting retinoids acid signaling. Chem Res Toxicol. 2010;23:1586-1595.

[11] Thongprakaisang, S. Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors. Food Chem Toxicol. 2013;59:129-136. June 10, 2013.

[12] Larsen K, Najle R, Lifschitz A, Virkel G. Effects of sub-lethal exposure of rats to the herbicide glyphosate in drinking water: glutathione transferase enzyme activities, levels of reduced glutathione and lipid peroxidation in liver, kidneys, and small intestine. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2012;34(3):811-818.8.


[14] Accessed July 19, 2018.

[15] Data from 2018 Sonoma County school Annual Notification Plans as provided by the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s office.


[17] Accessed July 19 2018.

[18] Accessed July 18, 2018.


[20], a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. Childhood Cancer Diagnoses accessed March 8 2017.Click here for article.


[22] Accessed July 18, 2018.

[23] Cox, C. 1995. Indiscriminately from the skies. Journal of Pesticide Reform 15(1):2-6.

[24] Miller GT. Sustaining the Earth, 6th edition. Thompson Learning, Inc. Pacific Grove, California. Chapter 9, Pages 211A216. 2004


[26] Accessed on July 19, 2018.

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