Hundreds of rural schools in Midwest states nestle against fields of corn and soybeans that are routinely sprayed with pesticides that could drift onto school grounds.
Health experts say those pesticides might pose risks to children, and nine states in other regions of the country have been concerned enough to pass laws requiring buffer zones.
But states in the Midwest do not require any kind of buffer zone between schools and crop fields and seldom require any notification that pesticides are about to be sprayed, a review of laws by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
Marc Lame, a professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, said Midwestern states could benefit from adopting similar legislation.
“In general, our pesticides here, as far as the type of pesticides, are just as dangerous or have the ability to drift or anything else as the pesticides out west,” Lame said.
Lame previously worked as national training coordinator for the integrated pest management education program through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Environmental Health Association, a nonprofit organization of environmental health professionals.
Pesticides include a range of products that prevent damage to crops or plants, and refer to herbicides, which kill weeds, insecticides, which kill or deter insects, and fungicides, which inhibit fungi. Some products, particularly insecticides, have been associated with neurological problems and childhood developmental delays at low levels of exposure.
The most recent state to establish buffer zones is California, which on Jan. 1 began to require a distance of a quarter-mile between the school and the area being treated with pesticides from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It also requires California growers to provide annual notifications to K-12 schools within a quarter-mile radius about the pesticides they anticipate using on their fields.
The California law was passed after two years of gathering public and stakeholder input, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Superintendents from several school districts, as well as the California Nurses Association, expressed their support for the restrictions.
“It seems to me, personally, that common sense would suggest that chemical free buffer zones or structured dialogue between schools and agribusiness operations would be in the best interest of all parties,” said Gary Funk, director of the Rural Schools Collaborative, a national nonprofit that aims to strengthen the bond between rural schools and communities.
No buffer zone requirement
In Illinois, where the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is located, there are 31 elementary schools within 200 feet of a corn or soybean field, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.
A similar patchwork is seen throughout the Midwest, with Ohio having the highest number of schools, 56, within 200 feet of a corn or soybean field. Indiana follows close behind, with 45 elementary schools within 200 feet of a corn or soybean field.
Funk said that while the Rural Schools Collaborative’s board has not examined this issue in various states, it’s “especially pertinent as more and more schools engage students in school gardening activities, and we add to our knowledge base on the relationship between healthy foods, student learning, and student wellbeing.”
Andy Larson, superintendent of Unit Seven Schools, a rural district in Champaign County, Illinois, says spraying on nearby agricultural fields is something that he sees but is not currently a concern.
“We do have fields within a quarter mile easily of the buildings, but we haven’t had much talk about this,” Larson said. His district’s two elementary schools, Unity East Elementary and Unity West Elementary, are both within a football field’s distance of crop fields. “We have the airplanes that fly overhead and spray the field,” Larson said, but added, “I don’t think it has any adverse effects on us.”
Forty-one states, including all of those in the agricultural Midwest, have no regulations requiring buffer zones around schools and day cares to protect young children from pesticide chemicals, should they accidentally drift off target from nearby crop fields.
“We say you need to be very cautious spraying around non-crop areas, be aware of wind speed and direction,” said Dennis Bowman, extension educator at the University of Illinois Extension.
But in Illinois, and most states, the regulations only go as far as the label.
“In our training we basically say you have to follow the label. The label is the legal document that says how the pesticide can be used,” said Bowman.
Some pesticide labels require a buffer zone
Some labels, which must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, do include a required buffer zone or directions based on wind speed, but without statewide buffer regulations around sensitive areas such as schools, a lot of decisions in the field are still left up to the pesticide applicator.
Lame, who lives in rural Indiana, says many farmers and pesticide applicators take special precautions when spraying near schools, but that a buffer regulation would add an extra level of protection.
“Because if all were all caring and from the community, there wouldn’t be any need for that, but there’s always the 10 percent,” Lame said.
Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Chemical and Fertilizer Association, said her industry works closely with the EPA to ensure that the labels on the pesticides are effective and work the way they intended “which first and foremost is to protect human health, and animal health,” Payne said.
Payne added that the commercial applicators her organization represents take great care to use their judgment beyond just what’s on the label, and work to maintain a positive reputation in the communities where they spray.
“They have a lot of responsibility when they show up to a field on any given day,” Payne said.
Pesticide application restricted
But regulators in some states felt statewide standards would reduce the likelihood of applicator errors.
While the distances vary, Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maine and New Hampshire all have statewide regulations that restrict aerial spraying of pesticides near schools by distances ranging from 150 feet to 1,000 feet.
Arizona has additional restrictions on other forms of ground application for certain pesticides. Massachusetts also requires the posting of signs to treated agricultural property before spraying if the field is within 500 feet of a school.
California’s new regulations are some of the strictest, by limiting many forms of agricultural pesticide application near schools and requiring more communication from farmers.
“This regulation will be an additional step to further protect school children from short-term pesticide exposure,” said Charlotte Fadipe, a spokesperson for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. “In addition, this measure can help to increase communication between farmers and schools or child day-care facilities, and it can help those facilities in responding to inquiries and potential incidents.”
From 2011 to 2014, there were 1,779 pesticide complaints in California. Only 120 of those complaints were on our near school property, according to the California Department of Agriculture.
One such incident occurred in 2015, when 28 students and staff at a Coachella Valley High School in Thermal, California, fell ill after a pesticide drifted from a lettuce field across the street. They complained of dizziness, nausea, throat irritation and burning eyes. Paramedics arrived to the school to treat those with symptoms but none required hospitalization.
Drift in the Midwest
Nationally, there were 2,593 persons with pesticide related illnesses that come from exposure at U.S. schools between 1998 and 2002, including 650 people in the Midwest, according to an analysis published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Among the cases that detailed the source of exposure, about 31 percent were linked with pesticide drift from nearby farmland.
Jenna Gibbs, Coordinator at the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health at the University of Iowa, says that farming families are increasingly relying on commercial applicators to spray their crops, and that fields have been inching even closer to nearby homes as farmers try to increase yields.
Gibbs set up drift sensors between farm homes and crops in Johnson County, Iowa, last spring, and said she is currently analyzing the results in the lab.
“Once we figure out how much of those herbicides end up in the air samples, we can offer some advice about what is a good buffer,” Gibbs said.
Her research center at the University of Iowa analyzed 400 pesticide drift complaints in the state between 2010 and 2016 and found the five most common pesticide chemicals to be glyphosate, 2-4-D, atrazine, acetochlor and pyraclostrobin.
Another chemical that Gibbs said is becoming more common in the Midwest is chlorpyrifos, a controversial insecticide that’s effective in managing the corn rootworm, but that was nearly banned under the Obama Administration.
“That’s one we’re concerned about, because we see its increasing use in row crops,” Gibbs said.
Chlorpyrifos: a controversial pesticide popular among corn and soybean growers
Chlorpyrifos, sold by Dow AgroSciences, has been used on everything from Brussels sprouts to lawns since 1965. But the largest agricultural market for the product is corn growers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has also remained a popular pesticide among soybean farmers throughout the Midwest, even as its application on other crops declined in the last decade.
In 2000, the EPA outlawed the use of chlorpyrifos on tomatoes, and household uses of the chemical were banned the same year.
In 2012, an additional restriction of a “buffer zone” was placed on the chlorpyrifos label by the EPA. The buffer legally restricts spraying from the ground around “sensitive areas,” such as schools, by 10 feet. When sprayed by air, the buffer ranges from 10 to 100 feet, depending on the amount of chlorpyrifos applied.
In 2015 the EPA went a step further and proposed to "revoke all tolerances," of chlorpyrifos by banning the pesticide altogether.
The following year, the EPA produced a revised risk assessment after the agency's independent Scientific Advisory Panel questioned the methodology used to quantify the pesticides risk in the original proposal.
But after reassessing in 2016, the EPA reached the same conclusion as they had the year before, and the agency maintained its call for a ban citing, “a breadth of information available on the potential adverse neurodevelopmental effects in infants and children as a result of potential exposure to chlorpyrifos.”
One study that factored into the EPA’s recommendation came from Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health. Researchers there measured the effects of chlorpyrifos on children by sampling their mother’s umbilical cord blood shortly after birth. As the children grew up, they found that 3-year-olds who had been exposed to chlorpyrifos in the womb were more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and developmental disorders such as autism.
The EPA's 2016 chlorpyrifos risk assessment also recommended a buffer of at least 300 feet around agricultural areas "for MOEs (margin of exposure) to not be of concern." The National Institutes of Health similarly noted that chlorpyrifos, "can be carried long distances" in the air.
But the EPA under President Trump reversed course, and denied the petition that would have banned chlorpyrifos. In March of last year, the agency’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt, decided to continue to review the science behind chlorpyrifos’ effects. Pruitt set a review deadline of October 1, 2022, and the required buffer on the label stayed at the minimum distance of 10 feet.
“The buffers remain the same. These currently appear on labels and were the result of the 2012 Spray Drift Mitigation Decision for Chlorpyrifos,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. “Since that time, the EPA has not made any additional mitigation decisions.”
The agency spokesperson added that the current buffer is “protective of human health and the environment, especially with regard to sensitive areas.”
Pruitt’s reversal of the anticipated ban on chlorpyrifos came despite widespread opposition from many environmental groups, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which penned a letter to Pruitt stating, “We urge EPA to rely on the established science and to take action to revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos, as proposed in 2015.”
Support for chlorpyrifos
Others in the agriculture industry welcomed Pruitt’s reversal of the proposed ban.
"Chlorpyrifos is an important part of farmers' integrated pest management programs, as it provides a targeted approach to pests," the Illinois Corn Growers Association said in a statement posted to its website in March of last year. "We hope that this decision by the Agency to deny the petition signals a change in approach under Administrator Pruitt's leadership."
The American Soybean Association took a similar stance, welcoming Pruitt’s decision to extend the review deadline for the pesticide.
"The denial of the activist petition on chlorpyrifos came on the heels of statements from academia, farmers and consumers alike, all bearing out the safety of this product when used correctly and in accordance with the manufacturer's label," Ron Moore, American Soybean Association President, wrote in a statement on the organization's website.
But Philip Landrigan, Professor of Public Health and Pediatrics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sanai, said industry exerts too powerful of an influence when it comes to regulations on chlorpyrifos and other pesticides.
“I worked many years ago studying lead toxicity,” said Landrigan, who has spent decades researching environmental pediatrics and exposure to toxic chemicals, “We saw a very similar pattern there. The lead industry failed to find any toxicity of lead to children, but studies done through non-industry funding did find hazards.”
In 1973, the E.P.A. required a phase-out of lead in all grades of gasoline after exposure to the element in children, even at low levels, was found to cause behavior and learning problems, hearing issues, anemia and slowed growth.
Landrigan said he sees parallels between the gasoline industry’s reaction to research linking lead to dangers and agricultural chemical manufacturers, and that buffer zones would be a “sensible” regulation to lower children’s exposure.
“Children are much more sensitive to pesticides than adults. They’re more heavily exposed because they breathe more air, drink more water, eat more food pound for pound,” Landrigan said. “Children are just more sensitive and more susceptible.”
Help us investigate pesticide drift
As we reported above, nine states in the U.S. require pesticide buffer zones between schools and crop fields, but none are in the heavily-farmed Midwest.
How much do pesticides drift between crop fields and places where people often gather, such as parks, schools or neighborhoods? Answering that question is the next piece of this story, and to do that we need your help.
As a part of our ongoing effort to engage the communities we cover in our investigative journalism, we want to know where you would like to see pesticide drift measured in your community. Email your suggestions (questions or tips) to our engagement fellow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your feedback will determine where we place drift sensors this spring, and will help inform the next phase of our reporting.
• The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools.