California has banned farmers from using certain pesticides near schools and day care centers under a new rule announced Tuesday that regulators said is among the toughest in the U.S.
Under the new rule, California farmers will be prohibited from spraying pesticides within a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) of public K-12 schools and licensed daycare centers from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the school week, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation said in a statement.
The new regulations take effect Jan. 1 and apply to crop dusters flying over fields, air blasters spraying orchards and fumigants along with most dust and powder pesticides that could be blown onto school grounds by the wind.
"These rules will help to further protect the health of children, teachers and school staff from unintended pesticide exposure," Brian Leahy, the department's director said in the statement.
Some California counties already require buffer zones between schools and areas where pesticides are sprayed on crops.
But the new rule is the first statewide standard of its kind, the department said. It is meant to safeguard about 4,100 schools and day cares and will affect about 2,500 California farms growing everything from almonds, strawberries and grapes to produce wine, officials said. Violators will face fines up to $5,000.
Farmers will also be required to annually tell schools and county agriculture offices about the pesticides they expect to use near school buildings. School officials will have the option of deciding whether to share that information with parents.
Farmers who criticize the new rule have said they are being unfairly targeted because schools often build campuses on cheaper land outside of town centers where the farmers tilled the soil long before students arrived.
"Nobody is going to argue, we need to do whatever we can to protect our children," said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation. "But we need to take a step back here. It's not that the farms went to the schools, the schools were built in the farm areas. We need better guidelines about where we're building schools."
Farmers are mindful of neighboring schools and don't spray crops with pesticides when it could harm children, he said.
But officials said more than 50 people have been sickened since 2005 by pesticides that drifted onto school campuses, illustrating the need for the stricter regulations.
In the most recent incident, about two dozen students and staff at Coachella Valley High School in Riverside County reported feeling ill in October 2015 after a grower used a pesticide near the school and the wind changed direction, said Charlotte Fadipe, a pesticide department spokeswoman.
Under the rule, farmers will be limited to spraying near schools at night and on weekends, when students are usually not on campus.