Farmworker advocates and environmental justice organizations called Tuesday for changes to federal, state and local laws to address what they said were new findings linking pesticides to various childhood diseases and disorders.

Local activists gathered for a news conference in downtown Bakersfield to draw attention to a new study titled "A Generation in Jeopardy: How pesticides are undermining our children's health & intelligence."

The report, released Tuesday by Pesticide Action Network North America, is a compilation of studies in recent years suggesting that childhood cancers, autism, birth defects and asthma are on the rise nationally -- and that pesticides and other agricultural chemicals may be to blame.

Among the report's recommendations:

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should ban products that can hurt children, and withdraw approval of potentially damaging pesticides for use in homes, day-care centers or schools;

* State and local officials should ban pesticides from use in public playgrounds, playing fields and parks;

* Federal and state governments should dedicate resources to help farmers adopt effective pest management technologies that rely less on pesticides.

At the noon news conference, members of farmworker communities in Arvin, Delano, Shafter and Tulare County said such measures could reduce sickness and developmental problems among their neighbors, friends and families.

"Children in the Central Valley communities like ours are on the front lines of exposure," said Salvador Partida, president of Committee For A Better Arvin.

Local progress

The Kern County Farm Bureau's executive director, Ben McFarland, said the report's call to local action was misdirected in light of the county's success in reducing exposure to pesticides.

"We're the poster child of how to do things right," he said.

The amount of restricted pesticides applied at Kern schools fell by two-thirds between 2002 and 2011, he said, adding that schools themselves apply such chemicals to their grounds.

McFarland also pointed to a 97 percent reduction, since the mid-1990s, in cases of pesticide "drift," in which people are accidentally exposed to pesticides during crop dusting.

"As a community we are ahead of the curve on these issues and protecting our environment when the applications of these pesticides is necessary," he said.

Lupe Martinez, a former national vice president of United Farm Workers who now serves as assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, acknowledged Kern's progress since the 1980s and 1990s. But he pointed to recent incidents in which children and farmworkers in the county have been accidentally sprayed with pesticides.

"We have a lot of progress to make," he said.