Student Well-Being

An Ill Wind

Urban sprawl in California has jammed farms and schools so close together that some teachers fear pesticides are poisoning them. Is there something in the air?
By David Hill — October 01, 1998 25 min read
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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.”

In Ventura County, the Oxnard Elementary School District plans to build a new school on a 14-acre site surrounded by fields of strawberries, lettuce, and peppers. Ironically, the farmers themselves object to the proposed school because they are afraid the students and teachers will be exposed to dangerous pesticides, and they fear litigation should someone fall ill. One of them, Frederick Rosenmund, has hired an attorney and intends to sue the district if it goes forward with the plan. “It would be unconscionable to build a school in close proximity to the regular application of these toxic materials,” wrote Richard Tentler, Rosenmund’s lawyer, in a letter to district trustees. “It would subject schoolchildren to exposure and toxic poisoning.” The district, however, plans to build the school anyway.

Yvonne Railey, a PE teacher, knows when the farmers are spraying because her mouth gets numb.

Deputy Commissioner Buettner admits that schools and farms often have an uneasy relationship. But he also believes the danger of pesticide use has been “a little blown out of proportion” by the media.

“As long as the pesticide is properly used,” he says, “and there’s no drift onto the adjacent properties, there are no real health concerns. And if you don’t come into contact with a pesticide directly, there’s very little way that you can become ill from the pesticide itself. You can become ill just from the odor of some of the pesticides-some are very odoriferous. But if you’re inside your classroom and you’re not exposed to the pesticide, you’re pretty safe.”

Rio del Valle Junior High is not a new school. A complex of beige stucco buildings with blue wood trim, it was built in the 1960s, when the surrounding fields were planted with lemon groves. “The farmers would spray pesticides on them once, maybe twice a year,” says teacher John Cort. “But about 20 years ago, they took out the trees and planted strawberries because they could make more money. And strawberries get a lot more pesticide.” Since then, Cort and other teachers at the school have suffered from a variety of respiratory problems, which they believe are a consequence of the spraying.

“When they switched to strawberries,” Cort says, “I started getting hoarse, losing my voice. So I went to a speech therapist and was told that it was from chronic overuse of my voice because I’m a PE teacher. Then, they found out I had precancerous growths on my throat-that’s why my voice was so raspy. They assumed I was a smoker. But I’ve never smoked.” Since then, he’s had eight throat operations, and his voice is still raspy. He admits that he can’t prove that the pesticides have caused his health problems. “But my gut feeling is that there is something wrong here,” he says. Cort also suspects that the number of Rio del Valle students with asthma has increased in recent years.

Yvonne Railey, also a PE teacher, knows when the farmers are spraying because her mouth gets numb. “I can taste it,” she says. “When that happens, I look around, and usually they’re spraying. Normally, we bring the kids inside, to the cafeteria. This year, we’ve had to do that twice. A couple of times, we stayed outside because they were spraying farther away.” Railey says she usually gets a headache and a sore throat when the farmers are spraying. About four years ago, she had a cyst removed from her throat. “The doctor said the spraying could have something to do with it,” she says.

Wayne Antrobus is one of two Rio del Valle teachers who have had their larynxes removed because of cancer. (The other now teaches at a different school in the district.) Antrobus, who has never smoked, doesn’t know what caused his cancer, but he wonders why he and so many of his colleagues have suffered from respiratory problems. The math teacher, who is able to speak by “burp talking,” asks, “What’s the common factor? Agriculture.”

Teacher Patrick Justus is convinced that the pesticides have aggravated his asthma and caused other health problems. Last winter, he felt sick at school but felt fine on the weekends. “I’d come back to school,” he says, “and I’d be sick the whole week. It was like I had a virus that wouldn’t go away. The symptoms were congestion, sneezing, and I felt really weak and achy all over. During spring break, when I wasn’t in school, the asthma went away.”

Music teacher Jarrel Fuller has one of the few air-conditioned classrooms at Rio del Valle. But she, too, has suffered from respiratory problems. “I’ve had pneumonia within a few days of spraying,” she says. “It’s not anything I can prove. But when they spray the fungicide, that’s when I have problems. I don’t even have to see them spraying. I just know. Within a couple of days, I start having severe asthma. It’s hard for me to breathe, and I get real congested. And then, three different times since I’ve been here, it’s turned into pneumonia. Like I said, it’s not anything I can prove, but I just know it’s not coincidental.”

While Fuller talks, one of her students picks out notes on a piano in the classroom. She has taught at the school for nine years. “For a while,” she says, “the farmers quit spraying, because the district complained. But then it started up again. They’re supposed to come to the office and let us know when they’re going to spray, but that doesn’t prevent them from spraying during school hours. I mean, it’s obvious when you can see a cloud of vapor coming toward the campus that the spray is moving. It’s not just lying on the ground. But we’re supposed to think that’s OK? Well, I don’t think it’s OK for me, and I don’t think it’s OK for the kids.”

Fuller, like Cort, would like for the district to take the problem more seriously. “They need to be on the side of the kids and the people who are working here,” she says. “And I think they are. They just need to be more aggressive about it. I think there needs to be an agreement between the farmers and the district that says, ‘No spraying during school hours, period.’ I don’t care which way the wind is blowing. Insecticides are meant to kill things. And it only makes sense that if it’s going to kill bugs and whatever, it’s not going to be good for humans to breathe.”

Rio School District superintendent Yolanda Benitez, a petite woman whose parents were migrant farm workers, says, “We’re not going to play doctor. If our employees are having health problems, they need to let us know. Let the doctors make a determination.” Unfortunately, she says, only a handful of Rio del Valle teachers have filed reports with her office.

District nurse Kathleen Guerrero says that last year 4.9 percent of the roughly 3,000 students in the Rio schools had asthma, which is below the national average. “I don’t see a particular trend or a particular problem here,” she says.

Still, Benitez insists she is concerned about the spraying, despite her remark to the contrary in the Los Angeles Times. “If I could stop the pesticides, I would,” she says. “If I had the authority to tell the farmers, ‘You will not spray,’ I would do that. I don’t want any pesticides in the community. But I also know the farmers have their rights. The problem is, they have a livelihood, and we’re here to protect the children, so you have to find a good mesh for the two sides to work together closely. What we’re trying to do is monitor the spraying and to make sure our agreement with the farmers is as tight as it can be.”

About a mile up the road from the junior high school is Rio Mesa High School, which is almost completely surrounded by strawberry fields. Part of the Oxnard Union High School District, it was number two on the Environmental Working Group’s list of the state’s potentially most dangerous schools due to methyl bromide. Inside, Janet Lapins sits in her empty classroom. She’s taught English, math, and special education at the school for more than five years.

“When I came here,” she says, “I was the epitome of health. Superwoman. I was very active, very athletic.” Then, about four years ago, she started experiencing extreme muscle fatigue in her legs and lower back whenever she jogged or walked uphill. “I could barely put one foot in front of the other,” she says. “It kept getting worse, so finally I stopped exercising.”

A specialist at the University of California at Los Angeles determined that Lapins’ muscles were going into a state of lactic acidosis after only a minimal amount of exercise. The question was: Why?

“I can’t help but wonder if it could have been caused by pesticides,” she says, “because I can’t find anything else in my lifestyle pattern that has changed.”

Her doctors, too, suspected that pesticides were to blame. “But they can’t say that it is, and they can’t say that it’s not,” she says.

Lapins is still upset over two helicopter spraying incidents in November. The first one, she says, took place on Friday, November 14, between 11 a.m. and noon, while school was in session. “They were spraying right across the street,” she says, “and there were rather heavy drift conditions. The winds were over 12 miles an hour. The odor was so bad that it actually permeated our administration building and our PE buildings and stayed there for the rest of the day. It was almost unbearable to walk into those buildings. And you could smell the pesticide at lunch time, while the kids were outside. It smelled like rotting citrus fruit.” The pesticide, Lapins found out later, was Lorsban 4-E, a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide. Organophosphates, which are related to nerve gases like sarin, make up the first class of pesticides to face renewed scrutiny under the federal Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. Under the law, such pesticides may be banned.

On the following Monday, the fields directly behind the school were sprayed with the same pesticide, Lapins says. “Again,” she says, “12-mile-per-hour winds were blowing right in the direction of the school. This time, I got a video camera and got a picture of the helicopter. He was spraying almost a thousand feet away, but it was coming onto the campus. I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

After the spraying, Lapins experienced dry mouth and “a very strong burning sensation in my chest” that lasted for three days. She filed a complaint with the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner, W. Earl McPhail, who sent his chief deputy, David Buettner, to investigate. “We looked into it,” Buettner says. “There was no indication that there was any substantial drift onto the school property. There could have been some odor, but the odor itself is not necessarily an indication that the pesticide drifted off site.”

Doug Wagner, who farms the strawberry fields across the road from the high school, told the Los Angeles Times: “I don’t understand what the concerns are. I do my spraying at night, usually, and then if there is any prevailing wind toward the school, we don’t do any application until the weather conditions are right.”

Richard Canady, the district’s assistant superintendent for business services, says the November spraying incidents were “exaggerated.” “The growers,” he says, “are in absolute and complete compliance with all the regulations. Matter of fact, they go beyond that. We could not ask for better neighbors.” He concedes that it’s possible that some people are “highly sensitive” to pesticides. “But I’ve been here for nine years, and no one else has ever complained.”

‘The growers are in absolute and complete compliance with all the regulations.’

Richard Canady assistant superintendent for business services,

“I consider myself a very reasonable person,” Lapins responds. “I usually like to negotiate. I’m a peaceful protester. But I’m getting very, very frustrated.”

This fall, Lapins is taking a medical leave from her teaching duties, “because,” she says, “my condition has become so debilitating. I can barely work at this point. And so my doctors have advised me to stay out of the area for a while.” Meanwhile, she has been transferred to a different high school, one that isn’t surrounded by crops.

In California, the debate over pesticides has only intensified in recent months. In August, the California Public Interest Research Group issued a report titled Poisoning the Air: Airborne Pesticides in California. The study concluded that nearly 4 million residents live within one-half mile of “heavy annual applications of the 152 pesticides identified by state regulators as those most likely to contaminate air and threaten human health.” Among other recommendations, the report urges regulators to “adopt a precautionary approach and establish buffer zones between pesticide-intensive farmland and homes, schools, or other sensitive areas until pesticides are proven not to drift or cause harm.”

James Wells, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, and Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, both slammed the report.

“CalPIRG’s latest pronouncement is not a scientific study by any standard,” Wells said in a written statement, “and CalPIRG’s statements about pesticides are clearly meant to frighten rather than enlighten.” The report, he added, draws “unsupportable conclusions” by linking data on pesticide use with census figures on where people live. “That’s like saying that millions of Californians must be at risk because they live within half a mile of freeways where cars emit exhaust.”

“CalPIRG is trying to say proximity equals risk,” Krauter said. “It’s like saying that if you’re standing on a street corner, you’re in danger of being run over by a car.”

Earlier in the summer, a coalition of environmental groups sued the Department of Pesticide Regulation, charging that the agency is endangering public health by insufficiently controlling the use of methyl bromide on farms. The current system, in which county agricultural commissioners govern the use of methyl bromide through broad guidelines, is inadequate, the suit alleges, because the guidelines have failed to prevent harmful concentrations of the fumigant from drifting off cropland and into homes and schools.

“This is a ridiculous claim,” Wells responded, “because DPR already has tougher restrictions on methyl bromide than any other state, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Some advocates believe that organic farming offers the only real solution to the growing conflict over agricultural chemical use near schools. “There may always be conflicts between farms and residential neighbors,” says organic grower Mark Lipson, policy program director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, “but the risk of toxic pollution does not have to be one of them.”

Meanwhile, in the strawberry fields next to Rio del Valle Junior High School, another growing season has begun. In August, before school opened, the growers injected methyl bromide into the soil in preparation for planting. They also took time to meet with Paco Garcia, the school’s principal. Both growers, Garcia says, agreed to do all their spraying before or after school hours.

“We want to be good neighbors,” says William Doyle, general manager of D.W. Berry Farms. He disputed John Cort’s allegations of spraying incidents on his property during school hours, saying, “We only spray at night, and we don’t do any aerial spraying.”

“I guess I must have been hallucinating when I saw that tractor,” scoffs Cort.

John Dullam, owner of Mandalay Berry Farms, recently signed a lease to farm the other, much larger, strawberry field that borders the school. He, too, pledges to be a “good neighbor” and to “cooperate fully” with the school district. “We plan to do all our applications during the time when school isn’t in session,” he says. “And we’re going to notify them each time we spray, as a courtesy.”

Garcia is cautiously optimistic. “Now we’ll see if they carry through with it,” he says. “If they don’t, I’ll have to start making some phone calls.”

Cort, who just started his 27th year of teaching at Rio del Valle, says: “I’m skeptical. But I could be wrong. I’m going to wait and see. But I won’t stay here if they start spraying again. I’m going to leave. Because this stuff is really starting to scare me.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2018 edition of Teacher as An Ill Wind

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