The Coastal Post - November 1999

They're Still Spraying Pesticides In Marin Schools

By Carol Sterritt

Across the nation, and right here in Marin, concerned citizens are meeting with educators, school personnel and others to promote safe school policies. As these folks focus on policy, a common refrain is that although pesticides are of concern, there is not much in terms of research to bolster the cause of groups opposing pesticide use.

Actually, that is not the case. Every day, another study is completed. This past July, the study from Pesticide Action Network pummeled my sensibilities with its account of pesticide increases. Use of carcinogenic compounds increased 81%, from over 31 million pounds in 1991 to over 56 million pounds in 1997. Pesticides considered to be reproductive hazards increased 34% from 24.4 million pounds in 1991 to 32.6 million pounds in 1997. This increase is certain to add to the birth defect rate, and to a reduced fertility and increased sterility toll. California's use of acutely toxic systemic nerve poisons (organophosphates or carbamates) increased 17%, from 13.8 million pounds in 1991 to 16.1 million pounds in 1997. These yucky items will increase the disruption of important enzymes controlling the nervous system. Attention deficit disorder, learning impairments, and anxiety attacks will skyrocket.

Even if we are increasing these pesticide numbers everywhere else, we should have zero tolerance for such in schools. Research has shown that children breathe at faster rates; their growing bodies force them to ingest more food per body weight unit than an adult. This means that pound for pound, polluted air and dirty water and food affect children more than adults. It is also true that children's play habits keep them closer to the ground, the grass, weeds and other land surfaces. Plus what child can resist a puddle? So all in all, a no-spray school policy makes sense.

It is most important we emphasize the good news where we can find it. Our state's Office of Pesticide Regulation recently announced a new approach. The department's head, Paul Helliker, insists that pesticide use must be reduced. Should Helliker's department succeed in helping Californians end their pesticide addiction, we will have inched away from the insanity of former Gov. Wilson's policies.

But often the right hand of government does not know what the left hand is doing. Even as Helliker was fine-tuning his vision, Governor Davis did two things to imperil the environment. First he decided that the MTBE phase out, originally to take place by spring of 2002, was too inflexible and created a hardship for the oil industries. Almost immediately after that decision, he vetoed the Healthy Schools Act (AB 1207). The former decision seems ridiculous in light of the fact that at least one oil company, Union 76, has already produced a cleaner-burning, lower sulphur fuel, and its prices are no more or less ridiculous than any other gas franchise.

The latter political action stunned environmentalists. Governor Davis had already gotten Kevin Shelley (D. S.F.) to throw out almost all of the meat of the Schools' bill. What remained was the simple but important idea of parental notification. Anti-pesticide forces liked this provision: it's true that many parents assume that no one would spray anything at their child's school or playground area. So the notification would have been an important wake-up call to parents. It was hoped that things would change once moms and dads realized that certain school districts employ anywhere from fifteen to thirty-seven pesticides and herbicides (sometimes more). Also, schools often use contractors who, although licensed, are not conscious of a child's need to be chem.-free. They will do routine sprayings, whether the problem is fully deserving or not, whether alternatives exist or not, simply because the spraying has been posted "on the schedule."

It is said that the reasoning behind Davis' veto was concern over expense. Each slip of paper with a pesticide notice would cost the state money. There was a fear that schools would bundle other notices with the pesticide notice. Thus a notice that should only cost a fraction of a penny might become a 29 cent item. Multiply that by all the millions of kids in California schools and the Governor felt that the state would face an economic nightmare.

Or so they say. But they need to offer their explanations to a larger force than one Carol Sterritt. Perhaps they should call the Pew Foundation, and try to explain the Governor's reasoning to Pew. This past Tuesday, November 16th, the Pew Environmental Health Commission called on states across the country to better track negative environmental factors and their impact on birth defects. So, let's think about this, the Governor has saved us all that money on school notices to parents, but that means it's less likely that pesticide use will go down in many school districts, so that means that there will be more pesticides, and now if those increased amounts of pesticides have to be tracked, well, I guess we will be spending the money we saved. And we will be less healthy.

According to the Pew Study, birth defects are the number one cause of deaths among infants. One third of all states fail to track them. And 25 states have tracking systems that need improvements. The Pew Study stated that only about 20% of all birth defects have known causes. "But mounting evidence indicates that environmental factors ranging from diet to toxic exposures may be blamed for many unexplained cases," said Lynn Goldman, pediatrician at John Hopkins, the study's principal researcher.

Each year, 6,000 babies die from fatal birth defects. Yet there is no information on 75% of 2,000 highly toxic chemicals produced in this nation. Lynn Goldman also reported that, "Of the top 100 chemicals released into the environment, 42 are suspected of causing developmental disabilities and four are known to do so. Of 25 pesticides used in US agriculture, seven are recognized as causing developmental problems," she said. Just 31 chemicals known to be toxic have ever been tracked by a Federal monitoring system.

The study did point to known dangers. It incriminated mercury for the birth defects it causes. The study also castigated PCB's and lead for causing learning disabilities.

In reading through the study, I couldn't get my mind off of all the California kids whose school playgrounds are adjacent to agricultural fields. The kids whose lives have been impacted by methyl bromide, fertilizers, the recently outlawed azinphos methyl (i.e. Guthion), and methyl parathion, we need to ask what risks we have tossed into their burgeoning DNA?

A study completed by Elizabeth Guillette and colleague looked at the differences between two sets of Yaqui Indian children living in Sonora Mexico. The lowlands group, which were children living in areas of high pesticide and fertilizer contamination, exhibited a decreased metal functioning and an increase in tendencies to aggressive behavior. According to Guillettte, "Some valley children were observed hitting their siblings when they passed them by, they became easily upset or angry with minor corrective suggestions from parents." This sort of behavior was not noticed in the highlands children, who were not impacted by chemicals.

Last spring I discussed this study with Warren Porter, Ph.D. A zoologist by education and a visionary by life experience, Porter himself has done a pesticide-fertilizer study. Something he has come to believe is that it is no coincidence that American schoolroom shootings often occur in the exact three week period when spring planting and fertilizer application is at its peak. His own study showed that aggression was innate in rats fed a drinking water contaminated with a pesticide-fertilizer combo. When he first heard about the Yaqui Indian study, he asked a close relative who held a degree in childhood development to explain all the ramifications of that inquiry. One facet had been to have the affected children attempt to make stick drawings of people. Their figures were pathetic, indistinct, disconnected smudges that looked like abstract art. Porter's relative was aghast. "These children have no chance, no matter what is done to help them, of recovering to lead normal lives," was her reply.

We can offer our kids stress management classes, or anger seminars, or we can do the right thing and offer them a pure environment. To get them through their education, we need to educate ourselves on the role that chemicals take. If we don't do this, we will continue to lose many children many ways. Several weeks ago, I was horrified to hear the psychologist's testimony at Kinkle's trial (Kinkle was the youngster that took out more than a dozen classmates in Springfield, Or). The psychologist spoke about holes hollowing out the tissue of Kinkle's grey matter, holes that a type of brain scan had revealed. Although horrified, I was not surprised. This type of injury has been detected in those with multiple chemical sensitivities. Chemicals affect our gray matter, and possibly if we are affected early enough, seriously enough, mental illness is one result. In Kinkle's case, the illness went undetected, and he and almost a score of others have been killed or maimed because of his mental impairment.

The day after the Pew Foundation study was released, I attended a training session for school maintenance workers held at the County Office of Education. I was delighted to find out that the man heading up the maintenance program at the Novato Unified Schools District, Ron Warfield, is an ardent reduced-spray proponent. He has designed an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM) that has targeted the pests and weed problems of Novato schools by using elimination techniques as solutions, rather than using chemicals. (For instance, in IPM, you might reinforce the caulking of all openings between the ground and floorboard where openings near pipes and sinks normally invite and allow cockroaches to come in. The caulking keeps them out, hence no need for spray, or for even bait.) The County of Marin is encouraging other school districts to become familiar with Warfield's program. Specifically, Luke McCann of the County Office of Education, and Stacie Carlsen, County Agricultural Commissioner, deserve a warm round of applause for helping Warfield get the word out to others.

As a county, our schools have a ways to go. There are reports that the Reed School District sprays RoundUp on the very sidewalk that leads to the school building. Bacich School is often a headache for nearby residents, who feel that there is too much sprayed too often. But Warfield's program is an unexpected ray of hope for our children's future. May there be more rays of hope like that one.

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