Monday, September 29, 2008

Group says students face exposure to pesticides

Group says students face exposure to pesticides

Special to The St. Augustine Record
Publication Date: 09/28/08

A new study repeats a 2007 claim that students at an elementary school near Hastings risk exposure to potentially dangerous pesticides.

State and federal environmental officials say they'll study the findings, but don't believe that children or teachers at South Woods Elementary School are in danger, a view echoed by Superintendent of Schools Joseph Joyner.

"We don't have now and never have had any concerns about the children and pesticides at South Woods," he said. "My own wife works at the school. I wouldn't leave her in the midst of a toxic cocktail."

His wife Susan teaches third grade at South Woods.

Pesticide Action Network North America, or PANNA, said 37 air samples taken near the school last year contained four potentially hazardous pesticides. The latest air samples were taken from Oct. 1 to Dec. 6.

"Parents should be concerned," said Karl Tupper, a scientist for PANNA. "The school board should be concerned."

The San Francisco environmental group has campaigned against pesticide use since 1982. It also opposes corporate globalization and genetic engineering in food and agriculture.

Joyner accused the group of using scare tactics to draw attention to its cause.

"In my view, this group is focused on being able to manipulate the media," he said. "It's just disappointing to me that they use fear as their tactic."

Owners of the cabbage farms surrounding the school said they are also hurt by PANNA's accusations and have been cautious in their use of pesticides.

"We are doing everything by the book," said Young Yoo, 64, whose family farms the land. "We are not hurting anyone."

PANNA said it found four pesticides in the air samples - endosulfan, diazinon, trifluralin and chlorothalonil.

Endosulfan, which smells like turpentine, is the most controversial of the chemicals. Farmers in the U.S. have been using it to kill insects since 1954. But environmentalists say it can interfere with fetal development and has been linked to fatal pesticide poisonings.

In July, environmentalists and farmworker groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency to try to ban the use of endosulfan, which is outlawed in the European Union, Cambodia and the Philippines.

PANNA members say they do not know whether the use of endosulfan and the other chemicals near South Woods School is heavy enough to hurt anyone. And they don't know if pesticides have made any local residents sick.

"Whether the pesticide levels observed in Hastings are high enough to cause harm is unknown - few studies have been done directly quantifying the effects of pesticides on humans," the group said in a Sept. 23 statement.

"This is really a problem that hasn't been appreciated very much, certainly not by the EPA and state regulatory agencies," Tupper said.

But, "lack of data does not equate to a lack of a problem."

PANNA's critics say the group causes needless worry since no one knows whether the chemicals are causing harm.

"No kids have been reported sick," Joyner said.

"I absolutely do feel the air is safe for our children," said Alison Griffin, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at South Woods. "My husband was raised right here in Hastings and has never had any health problems. If I felt there was any problem, I would not have my children at South Woods."

The dispute over air quality at South Woods began as a Pedro Menendez High School science experiment in December 2006.

Two students took eight air samples near the school using one of PANNA's "drift catchers," which "works like a vacuum cleaner, sucking air through tubes packed with an absorbent resin that traps pesticides," the group says.

PANNA tested the samples and reported in February 2007 that it found three potentially hazardous pesticides.

This time around, residents living near the school used a drift catcher to collect 39 air samples.

Sarah Hunt, 46, put the device in her backyard.

She said her house is three-tenths of a mile from the school and stands on the edge of a field where farmers cultivate Chinese cabbage in the fall.

Hunt, who has lived in the home for nine years, said workers usually spray chemicals during the day. One pesticide, chlorothalonil, is particularly harsh, she said.

"It smells like chlorine. It will take your breath away."

Hunt worries the pesticides are harmful and contends that school officials are "in denial" about the potential problem.

Joyner said he takes the issue seriously and that is why he ordered MACTEC Engineering and Consulting Inc., to test the air and soil at the school after PANNA's 2007 report.

Atlanta-based MACTEC, which has an office in Jacksonville, sampled the air in February and March of 2007 and did not find unacceptable levels of pesticides.

PANNA questioned MACTEC's methodology and called for more testing.

The EPA is studying PANNA's latest findings.

"The children's health issues raised by PANNA are important ones that EPA takes seriously," agency spokesman Dale Kemery said in a statement.

But, he said, he doesn't believe South Woods students are in danger.

"So far, data available to the agency concerning levels of pesticides in homes or children's bodily fluids are limited and inconclusive, and do not demonstrate that children in agricultural areas receive significantly more non-occupational exposure than children in non-agricultural areas," he said.

Officials at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are also reviewing the PANNA report, but they don't believe there is a problem, either.

"All of the pesticide levels reported, including the maximum values, appear to remain below levels of concern used by U.S. EPA and other Federal agencies," the agency's Bureau of Pesticides chief Dennis Howard said Wednesday in a letter to David Lee, the school district's building code administrator.

Howard said his agency has just begun to examine the PANNA report, however, and needs more time to fully evaluate it.

Whatever happens, Joyner said he doesn't plan to spend any more tax dollars to sample the air at the school.

"We spent thousands of dollars last time because of the fear that was created primarily through the media," he said.

The EPA, not the school, is responsible for outdoor air quality, he added.

"I think people's complaints ought to go to that governing agency. We're not responsible for outdoor air."

Hunt said she's not giving up and plans to test the air near her home again this fall.

"I'd like to see them come clean," she said. "Just be honest about it."

Tracey Eaton is a journalism instructor at Flagler College and may be reached at

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1 comment:

Dr. S. Banerji said...

Endosulfan can and should be used safely and judiciously. Soil and water with harmful levels of contamination may be re-mediated chemically or through microbes. It is best to spray at psi levels and with atmospheric conditions that prevent drift. Blood can be monitored for Endosulfan residues.