Iowa state Sen. Bill Dotzler has traveled across Iowa’s country roads on his bicycle while training and riding for RAGBRAI. On these rides, he pays attention to farmers spraying pesticides in fields along his routes.
“I’ve been out on the roads where you can see sprayers in high winds situations. You know you kind of pedal as fast as you can so you don’t get hit with it,” Dotzler, a Waterloo Democrat, said.
But any efforts to add regulations to pesticide spraying in recent years at the Iowa Legislature have not gone anywhere.
“We haven’t got much done on it because there is a lot of resistance from the farming community to regulate how they take care of their cropland,” state Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, said. Taylor, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he has wanted to introduce legislation that would limit the effects of over-spraying by addressing conditions and amount of feet when spraying pesticides.
“There are a lot of things we can do, but we cannot force our farmers to not save their crops, but we need to make sure they are doing it in a smart way that is not hurting other people too,” Taylor said.
“We can’t have them overspraying onto people living their normal life, whether it be school kids or citizens out enjoying the park,” he said. “We’re going to have to look at this a lot more seriously.”
State Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, said regulating spray drift has not been addressed in the Legislature because it is not a widespread problem. “That’s why it doesn’t come up as something that needs to be solved,” he said in an interview with the Cedar Falls Tiger Hi-Line, which collaborated with IowaWatch and the University of Northern Iowa Science in the Media journalism project for a story about pesticide spray drift near Iowa schools.
Zumbach, a farm owner who applies pesticides, said buffer zones between farm fields and school are not necessary if pesticides are applied responsibly and as directed on the label by applicators. “It’s not a topic that has come up and it’s probably not a topic that I’m interested in today. I’m more interested in each property owner being responsible for themselves,” he said.
“I think all chemicals need to be applied as directed. And that the applicator needs to understand this responsibility in application. When used properly they are considered safe by government agencies, when used properly.”
State Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said any new law would be unnecessary because labels on pesticide containers include legal restrictions on using the chemicals. “I know they can have harmful effects on people depending on how they are handled,” she said. “I believe the guidelines found in the law provide more flexibility to address the harmful effects people could experience than a buffer zone would.”
Pesticides are used often in Iowa, a state known for agriculture, and drift comes along with that. Public buildings and residential areas fall close to agricultural land because of high demand for agriculture in Iowa.
About nine out of 10, or 89.6 percent, of Iowa pre-kindergarten-through-12th grade school buildings are within 2,000 feet of cropland, the Science in the Media project at the University of Northern Iowa reports. That’s 1,183 of 1,321 school buildings. IowaWatch is part of Science in the Media, a program that produces journalistic reports on science-related topics and trains college and high school student journalists for doing science reporting.
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.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, “A pesticide is any substance used to kill, repel or control certain forms of plant or animal life that are considered to be pests.” There are various types of pesticides including herbicides that are used for getting rid of unwanted plant and animal life.
Dotzler said the harm pesticides can cause humans has been overlooked for too long in Iowa. “It is definitely something we should be more concerned about because if we’re talking about pesticides or herbicides, those things can accumulate, especially in young grades when you have the most growth going on. Those chemicals can be absorbed by the body and they stay there,” Dotzler said.
Dotzler, a legislator for 22 sessions, said he does not remember his fellow legislators addressing pesticide spray drift near Iowa schools.
“I think in order to get something done, you have to do it in little steps, and I think wind speed and restrictions on how windy it is when spraying, especially in an area where you would call a buffer zone near schools would be a good place to start,” Dotzler said.
Iowa Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, a former member of the Agricultural Committee and former dairy herdsman, said he has heard concerns from rural residents worried about spray drift. “I got a couple of calls from people who live on acreages. They were concerned about drift and overshooting from fields and dropping chemicals on the house and actually on them,” Johnson said.
According to a study by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, 41 states, including all of those in the agricultural Midwest, have no regulations requiring buffer zones around public buildings to protect the people from potential pesticide drift from nearby farm fields. California put new rules in place in January 2018. It was the first of nine U.S. states to regulate state wide buffer zones around schools this year, according to the Pesticide Action Network, a Berkeley, California, based organization promoting limited use of pesticides.
The California regulation requires a quarter mile buffer between cropland pesticide spraying and public school grounds. The buffer zones apply to all residential and public areas where people could be harmed.
“Notification on spraying is a critically important piece of the program from our perspective,” Kristin Schafer, executive director at the Pesticide Action Network, said. “If people aren’t aware that spraying is occurring, they aren’t able to protect themselves in any way.”
Schafer said her organization has found, using drift catching equipment, that drift exists beyond the quarter-mile buffer. “The reality is that chemicals can be moving more than that quarter mile and into buildings where people and especially children are very vulnerable to that exposure,” she said.
A pesticide cannot be registered under the act unless the applicant can prove that it will not cause unreasonable adverse effects on humans, including dietary risks, or the environment in any form.
The Iowa Farm Bureau suggests that current practices are sufficient to protecting students at schools near farm fields from spray drift. “Clearly, farmers are very conscious of the conditions that can contribute to drift, and are already avoid spraying close to schools when these conditions exist,” Laurie Johns, Iowa Farm Bureau public relations manager, said.
State Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, rents a family farm near Clinton, Iowa, called Mommsen Farms. He manually sprays his farm fields twice during the later half of April and during the month of May. He said he applies the herbicides Roundup, Balance Pro and Authority.
Mommsen said he does not notify people in nearby houses or public buildings before applying pesticides and herbicides. He said buffer zones would not be implemented in Iowa, calling them redundant because spraying application and safety precautions are addressed by the label on the chemical container. “If you are following the label, you should not be concerned at all,” Mommsen said.
Mommsen said he follows the protocol provided by the chemical companies, taking precaution when guided to and holding back from spraying when instructed. Mommsen said he is cautious, especially when winds are high. “Around my farm here, I’ve got houses. I’m very careful never to be spraying so it’s spraying onto my neighbor,” Mommsen said.
Taylor said that instead of implementing buffer zones, legislators are talking about restricting the use of pesticides in certain weather conditions and changing the way farmers apply. “What we need to do is make it that they wouldn’t be allowed to do it if the wind speed is too high or in a certain direction that would affect the public. We also need to look at the way that they apply because there are things that they can do to limit the overspray even if they are close to schools,” Taylor said.
But state House Agriculture Committee Chairman Lee Hein, R-Monticello, said he doesn’t find that spray drift to be a problem at the 2,000-foot distance determined by the 2006 study by the National Institute of Health. “That’s almost one-third of a mile. That’s quite a distance for drift. It would take ideal conditions. I just find that hard to believe that is a health issue at that distance,” he said.
“Let’s flip the table. If a farmer has been farming the property, and all of a sudden a school goes up beside him, should he be forced to take land out of production just because the school has showed up?” Hein asked. “I think it would probably fall under the requirements of the school to buy that buffer zone from the farmer, to maintain the buffer zone.”
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This IowaWatch story was republished by the Courier (Waterloo, IA), Des Moines Register, The Tiger Hi-Line and the Science in the Media website under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.