SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — When a local grandma saw Roundup weed killer warning signs posted at three of her grandsons’ schools, she had questions that the schools couldn’t answer.
She turned to CBS13 and we learned those schools are among many in the state that are violating state pesticide law by failing to warn parents before they spray on campus. When we brought our findings to the state, the agencies in charge of regulating pesticides and schools told CBS13 they don’t have the authority to enforce the law.
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Playing outdoors is an important release for eight-year-old Brandon who is on the autism spectrum. So, his grandma Lani Williams, was concerned when she saw a Roundup weed killer warning sign posted in the office at his school. She says he is very tactile, often touching his surroundings and putting his hands in his mouth.
Then she saw a sign at her other grandson’s school and another at Brandon’s summer school in a different district.
“Knowing enough about the Roundup, you know, the big controversy over it, about the cancer issues and so forth, I was concerned,” Lani said.
She’s aware of the thousands of lawsuits by cancer patients who blame the active ingredient in Roundup — glyphosate — for causing their cancer, and the recent landmark verdicts in favor of cancer victims, including a local school groundskeeper.
Roundup is just one of many brand name weed killers that contain glyphosate.
However, even the label says “keep people and pets off treated areas until the solution has dried.” In some cases, the labels specify 12 hours.
But Lani says she couldn’t keep her grand kids off treated areas, even if she wanted to. “Most of us don’t see those postings on the door, it’s just a small piece of paper,” Williams said.
The Healthy Schools Act
The Healthy Schools Act requires districts to post warning signs where a pesticide will actually be applied. The sign is supposed to be posted 24 hours before they spray and remain up for 72 hours after.
The only signs Lani saw warning “not to play near the treated area” were posted at the main offices and some were behind doors, nowhere near where the Roundup was actually sprayed. Some signs didn’t even say which day they’d spray.
“It doesn’t tell us a whole lot of anything,” she said.
The law also lets parents sign up for 72-hour notice before a pesticide is sprayed. However, even after Lani signed up, Brandon’s current school district sprayed again and didn’t tell her.
San Juan Unified provided the following response:
“It is our practice to notify individuals who have signed up for notifications any time pesticides are going to be applied. After looking into this specific instance, a notification was not provided due to a last minute staffing change. We regret that we failed to provide the requested notification and have taken steps to ensure notifications are issued consistently in case of last minute staffing changes.”
Regulators Can’t Enforce the Law
The Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) oversees the Healthy Schools Act and told CBS13 they hear from dozens of parents like Lani each year who are concerned about schools spraying weed killers with glyphosate around their kids.
“When parents find out that pesticides are being applied and they’re not informed, they tend to get upset. And parents have a lot of power with us,” DPR spokesperson Eric Denmark said.
Both the DPR and the Department of Education tell CBS13, while they can “encourage” schools to comply, the law doesn’t give them the “authority to enforce” it.
In fact, records show DPR flagged Sacramento City Unified School District for a Healthy Schools Act violation back in 2017. When the school still did not comply, records show the agency reported the district to the Department of Education.
However, three years later, Sacramento City Unified still appears to be violating the law.
That’s where Lani’s grandsons went to school last year and where CBS13 saw the non-compliant warning signs posted at the main office instead of where the chemicals were actually sprayed. Some of the signs didn’t even say which day they would spray.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the Sacramento City Unified School District insists, ” all documents, records and postings pertaining to pesticide application are thorough, properly maintained, and displayed at individual schools as required by the Healthy Schools Act (HSA).”
While they may not have the authority to enforce the law, DPR stresses its importance.
“The power of this law is that we know more about the patterns of pesticide use at schools in California than anywhere else in the country,” Denmark pointed out.
Tracking Pesticide Use at Schools
Schools are required to report any pesticide use to the department once a year. Across the state, DPR reports the average school uses glyphosate five times a year, however many schools use it monthly.
DPR’s most recent records showed fewer than 35% of districts were still using the controversial weed killers as of 2017 (the most recent records available when the data was requested). However, there may be far more schools using the pesticide than they know.
CBS13 requested 4 years of pesticide records from every school district in the state and compared the list of the schools that reported spraying glyphosate to us with the list of schools that reported the pesticide use to DPR. At least one out of five districts that told CBS13 they were still spraying the chemicals on campus were missing from DPR’s 2017 list. That number may be even higher as only a fraction of the state’s more than 1000 districts responded to our records request.
(Note: Two of those schools could not provide CBS13 with 2017 records but indicated that they did use glyphosate.)
DPR said at least 7 of the schools that we found missing from their 2017 list did report using glyphosate to them in 2018 but Denmark said he wasn’t surprised that the department’s list was incomplete. He notes, they are on a paper-based system. “In 2017, we received one hundred and five thousand plus reports, all on paper,” he said.
DPR acknowledges that human error is possible, and they acknowledge that they don’t even have a list of designated pest management contacts in each district.
The agency doesn’t publicly post the information it collects from schools and most school districts don’t either. In fact, there is no one place for parents to get the answers from their school that they’re entitled to under the law.
CBS13 Database: Glyphosate on Campus
So, CBS13 set out to create one, asking each district if they still use weed killers with glyphosate and how they notify parents. Only about 20% of the state’s school districts responded. Of those, 52% say they do still spray the chemical on campus, using various brand names. At least a third of those schools could not, or would not, provide records that they are required to keep by law.
Many of the districts that said they do not spray the chemicals reported recently phasing them out due to concerns about student health or lawsuits.
At least one out of four of all of the schools that responded to our request appear to be violating the law. Many couldn’t provide the required records and several mistakenly argued that weed killers aren’t pesticides. Both herbicides and insecticides are considered pesticides under state law.
Many districts also admitted that they post pesticide warning signs in a central location instead of where the chemical is actually sprayed. As Lani pointed out, she rarely has occasion to visit the school office and she only saw the signs at her grandsons’ schools weeks after the pesticides had been sprayed.
As for parent notification, it varies greatly from district to district. Most schools do provide a form to parents that lets them register to be notified 72 hours before a pesticide is sprayed, as required by law. A few school districts had easy-access online forms and at least one district asked parents if they wanted to sign up for notice when they registered for classes.
However, the vast majority of school districts bury the notice dozens of pages deep in an annual packet along with school rules and dress codes and other required disclosures. Some districts don’t even provide that.
State Relies on Parents to Report
Parents from various schools districts tell CBS13 they had no idea they they could sign up for notification and had not seen or noticed the form.
Denmark says the State relies on parents to report violations to the DPR and he says it’s important that they know when and where schools are spraying.
“I certainly wish that more people knew about this law,” Denmark said.
According to the EPA, adverse effects of pesticide exposure can range from dizziness and nausea to neurological and developmental issues. And the American Medical Association says pesticide poisoning can be under-diagnosed, often resembling things like respiratory or stomach illnesses which can be common in kids.
“If parents know that they’re spraying that day, they should tell their kids…stay far away” Denmark stresses.
Lani only wishes that someone was enforcing the law, so that she could warn her grandchildren.
“I actually I don’t think that a lot of parents understand that this is even happening,” she said.
While some states have banned pesticides at schools, California law says schools must use the “least toxic” effective pesticide. Many schools are now doing that without toxic chemicals, but many more are not.
Lani points out, you generally don’t get to pick your school district when your kids attend public school. She has no choice but to send her grandkids to a school that sprays glyphosate.
Still, she’s better off than private school parents. State law doesn’t apply to them so no one is tracking pesticide use on private school campuses and there are no required warnings at private schools at all.
To find out if your school is spraying glyphosate on campus and how you can register for notification, click below to review the CBS13 Glyphosate on Campus database. If your school did not respond to our request, we’ve provided details on how you can help CBS13 get answers for parents in your area.
**This post was updated to include additional information from the Department of Pesticide Regulation.