Buffer Zones: Pesticide Drift Can Endanger Children

WILLIAM COUZENS
RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH GUEST COLUMNIST May 7, 2005

It was a perfect spring day. Birds were chirping in nearby trees as, on an elementary school playground, children were running and screaming. One first-grader was being pushed on a swing by her teacher. “Push higher!” Sarah bellowed, “push higher!” With her head cocked back, her long blond braids almost touched the ground.

As the swing climbed higher, Sarah was able to see the man in what she called the “space suit” over the hedge. The schoolchildren were mesmerized by this man; with a gas mask and the steaming spray gun in hand, he looked to be out of the movie “Star Wars” . . . .

Fauquier. This story is only an illustration, but in Virginia it very likely could be a reality. The illustration is intended to evoke solutions based on the sound science available today warning of the dan- gers of off-target pesticide drift.

While its important to embrace and promote Virginia’s agriculture, it is crucial not to em- brace blindly what is not fully understood by the general public relative to side-effects of off-target pesticide drift from agricultural spraying.

Virginia vineyards unlike other crops such as hay, wheat, or barley, that do not warrant the expense of pesticides — are sprouting up in neighborhoods and next to schools without the benefits of buffer zones. Buffer zones are one step toward a best practice relative to distances required between agricultural spraying and schools. Other states have implemented buffer zones not only to prevent off-target drift but to offer insulation to schools should a pesticide accident occur. States that require buffer zones, depending on the type of spraying, can establish no-spray zones up to two miles from a protected site — a school. Virginia has nothing.

Virginia’s 100-plus vineyards (up from six or seven a decade ago) translate to up to $8 million in tax dollars and another $25 million in tourism. Yet these impressive numbers must not supersede the questions associated with human health outcomes.

While the Commonwealth does have pesticides experts, it does not have the science or expertise in place to address the dangers of pesticides relative to human health. There are no environmental health experts or epidemiologists.

CHILDREN ARE different from adults. Pound for pound, children eat more food, drink more water, and breathe more air than adults. Thus, they are likely to be exposed to substances in their environment at higher levels than are adults.

When we understand where and how these exposures come into play, it becomes clear that with children’s activities, including hand-to-mouth contact and limited hand-washing, the transference of exposures can come in a multitude of ways besides air. Exposure to toxicants like pesticides at such times may result in irreversible damage, even though the same exposure to a mature system may result in little or no damage.

What we do know is that pesticides have been linked to cancer. And in much the same way as not smoking cigarettes, we can eliminate pesticide exposures in the name of precaution.

It is that same notion of taking precautionary steps that should be applied to Virginia’s schools, where the state should prevent possible harmful exposures to schoolchildren from off-target pesticide drift, especially in light of the sound science that warns of the dangers.

The EPA continually warns of the dangers attached to pesticides. The EPA has licensed approximately 1,000 different pesticides — not by the level of safety, but rather by the level of the harm.

RECENTLY, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill providing relief to victims of pesticide drift. In the past four years, California has experienced numerous incidents where pesticide applications have drifted outside the area of application.

And while a few are quick to make the sound science regarding the dangers of pesticides sound benign, or even irrational, the reality is that these operations are not monitored scientifically by third parties. There are no checks and balances in place relative to human health outcomes.

In fact there is nothing in place in the state of Virginia to protect children from these types of exposures.

Until Virginia lawmakers begin to advocate for children in school relative to the buffer zones, agricultural communities need to embrace standards to protect themselves from off-target drift.

William (Bill) U. Couzens, executive director of Next Generation Choices Foundation, founded the organization upon the death of his sister from cancer.