An Ill Wind

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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."

PHOTOS: PE teacher John Cort has had eight throat operations since he began teaching at Rio del Valle Junior High-a school bordered on three sides by strawberry fields.
Some teachers accuse school officials of ignoring the issue. But district nurse Kathleen Guerrero (right) says that the incidence of asthma in the schools is lower than average. And Rio superintendent Yolanda Benitez says she is working to forge an agreement with the growers that simultaneously protects children and respects farmers' rights.
Rio del Valle Junior High principal Paco Garcia says tractors often spray pesticides when kids and staff are on the playground. "I've chased them away more times than I can remember," he says. "They get real close to the fence."
Teacher Patrick Justus (left) made a connection between his health and the pesticides when his asthma cleared up 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." His colleague Wayne Antrobus wonders if the chemicals caused his cancer. "What's the common factor?" he asks. "Agriculture."
Yvonne Railey, Rosanna Padilla, and Jarrel Fuller (left to right) say that the school district is not doing enough to protect them. After years of suffering in silence, they have gone public with their case. "At some point, you have to make a stand," says Railey.

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 36-41

Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as An Ill Wind
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