CEDAR FALLS — Nine of every 10 public school districts in Iowa have buildings within 2,000 feet of a farm field, making students and teachers susceptible to being exposed to pesticides that drift from the fields when pesticides are sprayed.
Yet many school officials interviewed for an IowaWatch/Tiger Hi-Line investigation this spring showed little to no awareness on if or how pesticide drift could affect the staff and students in school buildings.
“You know, I hadn’t even thought of that,” Kim Cross said. Cross is wrapping up as Cedar Falls Community School District Southdale Elementary principal before becoming principal at the new Aldrich Elementary in Cedar Falls that is set to open in the fall. “That was just something that I had heard recently that was a concern of someone,” she said.
The distance of 2,000 feet is based on a 2006 study by researchers led by M. H. Ward of the National Institutes of Health, who found an increased risk of potentially harmful pesticide spray drift from croplands at that proximity. To put 2,000 feet into perspective, the distance is about three city blocks in Iowa.
A journalism study by Science in the Media, a University of Northern Iowa project, showed 89.6 percent, or 1,183 of Iowa’s 1,321 K-12 public schools, are within the range of accidental spraying and spray drift. IowaWatch, a nonprofit news organization, and the Tiger Hi-Line, are media partners with Science in the Media, which provides IowaWatch with financial support to collaborate on journalism projects.
With close to 1,200 schools, or 33.5 percent of all schools, being adjacent to the fields and in range of sprayings, 444,559 students and teachers are at risk to exposure and health concerns associated with pesticide exposure, the study showed.
Louis Beck, an agriculture teacher at La Porte City’s Union High School — one of those schools adjacent to farmland — said a lack of buffer zones between public buildings and farm fields for pesticide application on the farm fields worries parents and faculty he knows.
“As a teacher, I don’t know if there is anything sent out or part of any orientation to students or their parents, or anything like that,” Beck said.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship reports 589 agriculture-related pesticide misuse complaints from 2012 to Aug. 1, 2017. But an agriculture department Pesticide Bureau staff review of records for IowaWatch and the Tiger Hi-Line showed only one of those alleged pesticide drift from a neighboring property to school grounds from crop year 2006 to crop year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, 2017.
That complaint was dismissed after an investigation indicated no pesticide application took place, agriculture department communications director Dustin Vande Hoef wrote in an email. The complainant mistakenly thought anhydrous ammonia was a pesticide, Vande Hoef wrote.
Chemical spray drift can occur in two different ways: during application or by volatilization. Volatilization occurs when pesticides evaporate and rise into the air in a gas form. Even if pesticides can’t be seen physically, they can be harmful.
When applied, the chemicals can be carried by the wind to points away from the intended application site — the process known simply as “spray drift.” The drift can then come in contact with other crops, animals, plants and even humans, in the form of “spray, vapor, odor or dust,” Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health states.
“It happens a lot. Growers work really hard to keep that from happening,” Terry Basol, Iowa State Extension field agronomist, said of spray drift accidents. “Most growers and everybody who are spraying pesticides are very aware and take all the precautions that they can from things like that happening as much as they can.”
Early symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning after a single pesticide dose include “headache, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, restlessness, nervousness, perspiration, nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, loss of weight, thirst, moodiness, soreness in joints, skin irritation, eye irritation, irritation of the nose and throat,” according to the Pesticide Safety Education Program of Cornell University.
The Cedar Falls Community School District is constructing the new elementary school within 2,000 feet of a farm field. “Even if that is exposed, it’s not right next to a crop field,” Douglas Nefzger, the district’s director of business affairs and school board secretary, said.
Land where the school is being built was purchased jointly in 2007 by the city of Cedar Falls and Cedar Falls school district. Nefzger said projected rapid population growth drove city planners to select the site, west of Hudson Road on Erik Road.
“I can tell you, if you look at the district maps, none of our current buildings are anywhere close to (agricultural) land,” Nefzger said. “The exception to that will be next year when Aldrich Elementary opens up.”
More than 680 million pounds of pesticides are applied to U.S. agricultural fields each year, according to a report by the Pesticide Action Network, a Berkeley, California-based organization seeking limits to pesticide use.
The National Academy of Science estimates that one-third of neurobehavioral disorders are caused directly by pesticides. In the United States, 15 percent of all children have one or more developmental disabilities. This shows a 17 percent increase when compared to the previous decade.
A published study, “Proximity to Crops and Residential Exposure to Agriculture Herbicides in Iowa,” in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives stated that houses closer to pesticide-treated farms were found to have more pesticide-related chemicals than other houses in their communities.
Only 18 percent of U.S. states require buffer zones between schools and farms, but Iowa isn’t one of them.
“Industrial agriculture has its grip on this Legislature,” Iowa Sen. David Johnson (I-Ocheyedan), said. “I’ve seen that before, and that generally stifles regulatory consideration when you have a legislature like it is now.”
But state Rep. Norlin, R-DeWitt, who rents a family farm near Clinton, said labels on pesticide containers provide sufficient regulation for applicators.
“If you look at a label of any herbicide, it already talks about wind speed, if you need a setback or a buffer area and all those things are already there. That has nothing to do with legislation. That has to do with the manufacturer and the government,” he said.
Pam Ziegler, director of elementary education for the Cedar Falls school district, said urban growth along the west side of Cedar Falls will continue increase at such a rapid rate that she has no concern of potential spray drift toward the new elementary school and its effects. On the west side of Aldrich Elementary, for example, city-owned land eventually will be developed into a park area for the school, she said.
Of Cedar Falls’ nine open school buildings, all but two, Peet Junior High and Cedar Heights Elementary, are within a distance that could result in exposure to drifting pesticides, according to the 2017-2018 Iowa Public School Building Directory that the Science In the Media project used for its mapping analysis.
Cedar Falls’ school district does not have a formal response plan if exposure to spray drift at a school, something which has not happened at a Cedar Falls school. “I think about the only thing the district could do is to bring that concern up to the landowner,” Nefzger said. “I know that the gentlemen that owns that property also owns other properties adjacent to residential developments in the community, so I can’t imagine that he would not be sensitive to our requests.”
Bob Uhl, owner of the land adjacent to Aldrich Elementary, declined to comment for this story.
Nefzger said, “I think any time you see somebody out there on a 20 mph windy day spraying, that would raise a flag or two. I would like to think that most of our ag friends know that that is a waste of resources for them because the product is not being applied where they want it to be applied.”
Elise Leasure, Saba Aydiner, Chase Kline, Tehya Tournier and Ben Boezinger contributed to this report. IowaWatch is part of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, a non-profit, online news Website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.