Elena Scotti/FUSION

BAKERSFIELD, CA – For decades, parents and community leaders in this part of rural Kern County have fought to make sure their children are protected from pesticide exposure, with some victories and some loses.

Now, advocates are gearing up for what could turn out to be their biggest win: this fall, the Kern High School District will introduce an advance notification system to let schools located close to farms know when pesticides will be applied near their campuses.

Over 1.4 million California schoolchildren are currently exposed to pesticide drift, which occurs when chemicals are applied to crops and scattered by the wind into surrounding populated areas.

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Parents have good reason to be concerned. Pesticide overexposure has been linked to a myriad of health problems including cancer, asthma and neurological development issues.

The advance notification system will allow school administrators to call homes and tell parents when there will be spraying near their schools. Teachers and coaches will also have time to adjust their outdoor activities when spraying is scheduled to occur.

The new system will require growers to notify schools of pesticide spraying that takes place during school hours, as well as before or after school if other campus activities are planned for that particular day.

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If successful, the program could expand to other agricultural areas in the state.

“Our growers don't want to get drift on kids,” said Glenn Fankhauser, the assistant Agriculture Commissioner of Kern County, whose office is working with the California EPA on the notification system.

While parents and advocates are happy about the change, some are concerned that these notifications only apply to restricted pesticides, which require state certification to buy and handle. And, even with a system in place, there is still some questions about how exact the times and dates provided in the notifications will be.

“A lot of people think we (the Agriculture Commissioner’s office) know when application [of pesticides] is going to happen,” Fankhauser said. “Even though we get notified in real time, we don't know when the application happens. They could say they are going to spray at 2 p.m. but in reality they have a window of time from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. to spray, depending on the factors.”

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For parents whose kids may be unknowingly exposed to pesticide drift, the absence of an effective notification system is unacceptable.

“We know that we don't like pesticides near schools because we want to take care of our children,” said Jose Mireles, a parent and grandparent in the farming community of Lamont, adding that studies have proven there to be “a lot of pesticides in the air near schools.”

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In Kern County, farmers are not allowed to spray within a quarter mile radius of a campus when school is in session. Mireles and other advocates are now asking the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Kern County Agriculture Commissioner’s office to increase the buffer zone to one full mile.

Currently, 15 counties in California have restrictions on how close pesticides can be applied to schools, with ranges varying from 500 feet to one mile for restricted pesticides. Notifying schools near the fields that a pesticide application is going to happen during school hours is, in most cases, completely voluntary.

Mireles has been a witness to that fact.

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“They were spraying right behind Mountain View Middle School while my grandkids were playing,” Mireles said. “We reported it to the county and they looked into it and they said [the pesticide] wasn't harmful. If it's a pesticide it's going to be dangerous. When they mix two or three pesticides, it has to be dangerous.”

Mireles said he has told growers that his grandchildren have complained about the smell of their pesticides at school, but that hasn’t resulted in any change to when or where they spray.

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A 2015 a study conducted in nearby Tulare County found that students there were exposed to pesticides applied as far as a mile away from their school. The analysis was conducted with hair samples that revealed traces of dozens of pesticides including Chlorpyrifos, a chemical found to cause developmental issues in lab animals and humans.

Tulare currently requires a quarter-mile buffer zone for pesticide application during school hours.

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“It just confirms a lot of the concerns. A thing like this, for the parents, they had expressed that they weren't surprised. It was almost a suspected thought. It was very appalling for them to know that residue was found in hair samples taken. They were upset,” said Angel Sanchez, a community organizer in Tulare County.

Despite the victory of advance notifications in Kern County, parents and community organizers here are continuing to fight for additional safety precautions.

Roberto Gonzalez, a father of two in Lamont, says his son’s asthma is what got him involved in the effort to increase buffer zones around schools.

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“At some of the schools they spray fields that are right next to where they play—at the basketball courts or soccer field,” he said. Gonzalez can’t prove that his son’s asthma is due to pesticide exposure, but he is certain “they make it worse for him.”

Val Gorospe, a community organizer in Kern County at the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, said she and other groups are working with agricultural districts and are in communication with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to make a one-mile buffer mandatory for growers across the state.

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“Teachers, parents and students have told us over and over that it is something that happens on their way to school, during school and after school, and even on weekends when they're on school property,” Gorospe said.

“A short-term goal would be creating a one-mile buffer zone for restricted pesticides. I understand how tough it is to establish new legislation. If we could start off with restrictions though, that would be great.”

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This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.

Michael Wafford has lived in California’s Central Valley his entire life and has served for two years as the editor for a pair of rural newspapers in Kern County, where he has reported on topics ranging from restorative justice in schools to worker’s rights and other issues impacting working families in rural California. Michael graduated from California State University, Bakersfield in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and previously attended community college at Bakersfield College. As a fellow, Michael is interested in reporting on quality-of-life disparities that exist in Kern County, particularly for those working in the local agriculture and oil industries. When he’s not reporting, Michael can often be found immersed in video games, comic books and animation, which he says, “have filled my life since before I can remember.”