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Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as AN ILL WIND


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The Oxnard Plain, a wide basin northwest of Los Angeles in Ventura County, is home to some of California's most fertile farmland. Here, strawberries and other crops grow right next to busy Highway 101. Last year, agriculture production in the county was valued at nearly $1 billion. But the farmland is slowly disappearing as more people-attracted by the balmy weather and affordable housing-move into the area. Acre by acre, lemon groves and strawberry fields are being transformed into shopping malls and housing developments.

On this cloudless day in early June, strawberries are selling for $15 a flat at one stand. "Just picked this morning," promises a young woman from behind the counter. Across the highway at Vons Supermarket, the berries are going for $1.99 a pound.

Over at Rio del Valle Junior High School, home to 650 students, a light ocean breeze fills the air with the sweet scent of strawberries. No wonder-the school, just north of 101, is bordered on three sides by strawberry fields. Just over the chain-link fence that separates the school property from the fields, farm workers wearing straw hats are picking the berries. They are paid by the flat, so they work fast. It's not uncommon to see them running with full flats in their hands toward the field supervisor, who keeps a tally of their work.

"We're happy to see the pickers," says physical education teacher John Cort, standing next to the fence, "because that means they're not spraying today."

Six years ago, Cort and his students were on the school's athletic field when a helicopter dusted one of the nearby fields with a pesticide. "The wind was blowing toward the school," says Cort, who is 50 years old and has a lean build and a raspy voice. "I could feel it pretty quick. I got a headache, then my throat started burning. And within an hour, my eyes were swollen shut. I went to the emergency ward. So did some other teachers. About 10 to 15 students went home. Later, the farmer sent us each two flats of strawberries to make up for putting us in the hospital."

After the incident, the small Rio School District forged an informal agreement with the two growers that farm the strawberry fields. The farmers agreed not to do any aerial spraying during school hours. They also promised not to do any ground spraying next to thecampus when school was in session, and they agreed to spray other areas only if the wind was blowing away from the school. A windsock was installed at one corner of the school property so that wind direction could be easily determined.

But Cort and others at the school say the agreement has been repeatedly violated in recent years. They say the farmers have sprayed, mostly by tractor, during school hours and when the wind was blowing toward the school. And they believe-but cannot prove-that they have suffered health problems as a result of the toxic drift. Cort, for one, has had eight throat operations since he started teaching at Rio del Valle in 1972. Another teacher, like Cort a nonsmoker, had his larynx removed. Others suffer from flu-like symptoms whenever the fields are being sprayed. "There are a lot of respiratory problems going on here," Cort says.

Until last spring, the teachers mostly grumbled to themselves about the spraying, although occasionally one would file a complaint with the district office. But in April, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group released a report listing the California schools that are potentially exposed to the highest levels of methyl bromide, a highly toxic soil fumigant used by farmers to kill insects, mites, rodents, and weeds. Rio del Valle was number 22 on the list. Indeed, four of the Rio district's five schools were among the state's 25 most potentially dangerous schools, as measured by the amount of methyl bromide used within 1.5 miles of the campuses. At the top of the list was Rio Plaza Elementary, just across the road from Rio del Valle.

Daryl Kelley, a reporter for the Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times, filed a story on the report, which appeared under the headline "Study Warns of Fumigant Near Local Schools." He summarized the report's findings, noted that eight Oxnard-area schools, including four in the Rio School District, could be found on the list of the top 25 schools, and he quoted Rio superintendent Yolanda Benitez as saying, "I don't think there's a problem."

Benitez maintains that she was misquoted, and she says she is trying to forge an even tighter agreement with the two growers. But to some teachers in the district, the statement only confirmed their suspicion that Benitez was ignoring the issue. After years of silence, they decided to go public with their concerns. "At some point," says teacher Yvonne Railey, "you have to take a stand."

Cort and his colleagues are now pressing the school administration to take a harder line in stopping the pesticide spraying near Rio del Valle. "Maybe they could try a restraining order," he suggests.

"I'd like to see no spraying during school hours, period," says teacher Rosanna Padilla. "Don't tell me that this stuff doesn't get in the air."

But even after another article, "Teachers Protest Use of Pesticides Near Schools," appeared in the Times, the spraying continued. "A week and a half after that story came out," Cort says, "they were spraying right against our fence again." The incident, Cort says, took place on a small field operated by a company called D.W. Berry Farms. "It was about 8:15 or 8:20 in the morning when they started," he says. "My students were doing their warm-up exercises. Then they started running toward the fence. But I called them back when I saw that the field was being sprayed. I went and got the principal, and he told them to stop. So they went about a quarter of a mile away and sprayed in a different area. Then they came back again later."

Padilla, who also witnessed the spraying, adds, "The tractor was going through the field, and this cloud of mist was all around it." The driver, she says, was "completely covered, from head to toe," in a protective suit, complete with goggles and a respirator.

Rio del Valle's principal, Paco Garcia, confirms the incident and adds: "I've chased them away more times than I can remember. They get real close to the fence. Whenever the PE staff sees them out there, they call me and I go deal with them. Sometimes it's been on calm days, and sometimes the wind's coming our direction. They usually leave after I talk to them, but in a couple of cases, they've come back after I've left. And then I had to chase them out again. That's been the biggest nuisance of all." Garcia says there were about a half dozen or more such incidents during the 1997-98 school year.

"It should have been resolved a long time ago," he says. "From my viewpoint, it's the farmers' issue, not the administration's. Because we don't drive the rigs. We can complain to the district office, and I can go chase them off, but they're still going to do what they're going to do."

Still, he adds, "I think we should have more than just an agreement with the farmers. It should be more like a demand from our school district. Whenever there are bodies out here during the school day, they shouldn't be anywhere around. I'm sure they could spray early in the morning, from sunrise to 7 o'clock, and after we leave. Most people are cleared out of here by 3. They could spray after that if they wanted to. But leave us alone."

All across the nation, there are growing concerns about the use of pesticides near schools. In May, 75 students and teachers at a combined middle-high school in Litchfield, Illinois, were sent to the hospital after herbicide fumes from a nearby farm drifted onto the campus. "You could just smell waves of it," one teacher said. "More and more of us got the burning eyes, and my throat closed up. Some people threw up. All of a sudden the ambulances started coming." In June, the state department of agriculture charged the Raymond Fertilizer Company with improperly spraying two herbicides near the school. But the company denied any wrongdoing.

All across the nation, there are growing concerns about the use of pesticides near schools.

In March, the city council in Cranston, Rhode Island, south of Providence, voted not to renew a 15-year-old contract allowing a farmer to grow corn on city-owned property next to an elementary school. Councilman Kevin McAllister said he was "not against farming" but was concerned about exposing the schoolchildren to chemicals used by the grower.

Last year, then-Governor Fife Symington of Arizona vetoed a law that would have allowed crop-dusters to spray pesticides closer to schools and day-care centers. The measure, narrowly approved by state legislators, would have shrunk the pesticide-free buffer zone separating schools and farmlands from one-quarter mile to 300 feet, a distance the governor called "really nothing."

California, however, is at the center of this controversy. It is, after all, the leading agricultural state, responsible for 25 percent of the nation's pesticide use. Farms and schools often can be found near or next to one another. An increasing number of teachers and parents, concerned about the potential health hazards of pesticides, are objecting to the application of chemicals near school campuses. Farmers say that pesticides pose little or no health risks, even when used in fields that border schools and residential areas. But many teachers aren't buying it.

Two years ago, teachers at the Ventura County Youth Correctional Facility's high school, in Camarillo, walked out en masse following two early morning spraying incidents. Teacher Brad Gardner, who reported illnesses from both sprayings, told the Los Angeles Times: "We're not anti-agricultural. But there's a long history of the growers doing some horrible stuff with pesticides. They came out and sprayed without telling us, and they were right on top of our classrooms." The walkouts led to reforms; now farmers must give the school advance notice before spraying.

In September of last year, a number of teachers and students at an elementary school in Watsonville, south of San Francisco, staged a sickout when methyl bromide was applied on a field next to the school. The boycott angered school officials, who accused the teachers of promoting "unnecessary hysteria." But teacher Karen Walker defended the action. "We know the pesticides don't stay on the field," she said in a statement issued to the media. "The pesticides are in the air the students and teachers breathe. That is unacceptable."

In Sonoma County, an apple and grape grower whose farm is close to five schools dropped plans to fumigate his fields with methyl bromide after parents and school officials objected.

Community activists in Lompoc, a farming community in Santa Barbara County, also convinced local growers to be more careful about spraying near schools and homes. Some farmers there have created small pesticide-free buffer zones. But a number of teachers in the area have asked to be transferred from schools located next to farms because of concerns about their health. Substitute teacher George Rauh, who is serving on a state-appointed committee to investigate links between illnesses and pesticide drift in the Lompoc area, refuses to teach at one particular school because of its proximity to crops.

Pesticide use in California has actually increased in recent years. Grapes receive the heaviest amount, but strawberries, which are grown on only about 23,000 acres, are the most intensively treated crop; each year, more than 300 pounds of pesticides per acre are applied to the crop. Before planting, the nerve gas methyl bromide is injected into the soil. (Because the fumigant is known to deplete the Earth's ozone layer, the Environmental Protection Agency has scheduled it to be phased out beginning January 1, 2001.) Later, two fungicides, captan and ipro-dione, are applied. Both are listed by the EPA as "probable human carcinogens." Other pesticides are sometimes used, as well.

"Strawberries are one of the most pesticide-intensive crops because of the fragility of the fruit," says David Buettner, chief deputy agricultural commissioner for Ventura County. "You've got a crop that has a soft fruit that is short-lived and that is very susceptible to fungus, diseases, and insects."

Farmers say they have to use the pesticides to grow the kind of berries that consumers will buy. "We wouldn't spray if we didn't have to," says one grower.

Growers also point out that California has the nation's toughest pesticide laws. Before pesticides can be used, they must be evaluated and registered not only by the federal EPA but also by the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation, part of the California Environmental Protection Agency. According to a fact sheet distributed by the DPR, "the manufacturer must submit test data to show the pesticide will not pose unacceptable risks to workers, consumers, or the environment." Any time farmers apply a pesticide, they must notify the county agricultural commissioner's office. Some of the most toxic pesticides, such as methyl bromide, are "restricted," that is, they can only be used after a permit is obtained from the agricultural commissioner.

As pesticide use has increased, so has California's population. And more and more people are moving into agricultural areas like Ventura County. Farmland is being carved up into housing developments, and new residents are increasingly concerned about pesticides drifting into their homes and schools. These areas, which the Department of Pesticide Regulation refers to as "the agricultural-residential interface," have become the front lines in a growing culture clash. "Methyl bromide," notes the report issued by the Environmental Working Group, "and other pesticides are now being applied to croplands in close proximity to suburban and rural neighborhoods and communities. California schools, which in rapidly growing areas are often built right next to agricultural fields, are especially vulnerable to pesticide drift and serve as an indicator of exposure in the surrounding communities."

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 36-41

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