More than 4,000 elementary schools are located within 200 feet of farm fields. And while many states have acted to restrict farms’ ability to spray pesticides near those schools, Congressional lawmakers are considering multiple proposals that could block them from doing so in the future.
Because children’s nervous, immune, and other bodily systems are still developing, acute and long-term pesticide exposures are more dangerous than they are in adults and can lead to learning disabilities, organ damage, and some cancers. One long-term study in California has found that children regularly exposed to agricultural chemicals had higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and more difficulty learning.
In Hawaii, when pesticide drift incidents sent middle school students to the hospital, schools and parents responded, galvanizing a growing movement. In 2018, the state became the first to ban chlorpyrifos. In 2021, the EPA banned chlorpyrifos nationwide, but a federal appeals court last week overturned that ban, sending it back to the agency for further consideration.
“States know that pesticide spraying is a risk to students,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), at a press conference announcing the results of new analysis on the topic from researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “Despite all of that . . . some members of Congress are proposing to preempt all of these laws, stripping states and localities from being able to do what’s necessary to protect their children.”
The proposal that would almost certainly curtail states’ ability to impose buffer zones and other restrictions around schools was first introduced in 2022 by former House Republican Randy Davis, who at the time said he was concerned that local communities were trying “to usurp some of the federal rules and regulations that we fought so hard to put in place.” The bill had strong support among groups that represent the agriculture, landscaping, and pesticide industries.
Now, according to Booker and policy staffers at EWG, lawmakers are planning to reintroduce the bill as part of the upcoming farm bill (or as part of a separate spending package). And it’s just one of three proposed bills that EWG and its allies are concerned would constrain state and local efforts to regulate pesticide use.
In June, in anticipation of farm bill negotiations, Representatives Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota) and Jim Costa (D-California) introduced the Agricultural Labeling Uniformity Act, which would prevent states from putting their own warning labels on pesticides that differ from the ones the EPA has already approved.
For example, in California, Proposition 65 requires companies to provide warnings on products that are “known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm,” which is beyond what the EPA requires. “State labels . . . threaten public confidence in the agency’s authority and science-based regulation and undermine the critical role pesticides play in sustainably feeding a growing world,” Tom Haag, president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), said in a press release. NCGA is one of 360 agriculture and pesticide trade and advocacy organizations that are backing the legislation.
Finally, while ranchers and meat industry groups have been battling over the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, it could also impact state pesticide laws. The EATS Act was introduced as the next chapter in the long saga over California’s Proposition 12 animal welfare law.
When the Supreme Court declined to overturn Prop. 12, lawmakers created the EATS Act to prevent other states from regulating how animals are raised on farms. Now, they’re working to get it included in the farm bill. However, the bill could have much more far-reaching implications. An analysis out of Harvard Law School identified more than 1,000 state laws that could be overturned as a result of the broad language in the EATS Act and found that it “also could affect certain state and local regulations on pesticides and fertilizers.”
In September, a coalition of more than 180 public health, agriculture, and environmental organizations sent a letter to federal lawmakers urging them to oppose all three bills. “These efforts serve only to limit the ability of the EPA, states, and localities to protect their people and environment from the harms of pesticide use, while shielding companies from liability for their products’ harms,” they wrote.
EWG’s new analysis is in support of that larger push, and it included two maps—one of schools across the country that are situated near crop fields and another that shows the state and local pesticide laws that it sees as threatened.
“I will be one of these people taking every measure possible not to let this . . . happen,” Booker said, emphasizing that because federal rulemaking moves so slowly, other entities that can move faster should be able to step in on behalf of public health. “States and local communities being able to act is a vital tool in the toolbox in protecting Americans,” he said.
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Author: Lisa Held