February 9, 2006
Parent Wins School Pesticide Battle
A new law that bans that use of experimental pesticides in schools is the latest achievement of Robina Suwol, a Jewish anti-pesticide activist.
The law, which took effect last month, grew out of a presentation two years ago before an L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) advisory committee of which Suwol was a part.
As Suwol recalled it, a researcher asked to use LAUSD school sites to test an experimental pesticide.
"The woman said, 'We use less [pesticides] and they're stronger [so] therefore they're safer,'" Suwol said. "We all kind of laughed and politely declined."
But in the back and forth, the researcher mentioned that a school site had already been secured in Ventura County for the experimental product.
"That haunted me, and I began to research it," she said.
What Suwol said she found was an arena of murky practices and documentation. It wasn't clear that experimental pesticides were being used at any schools, she said, but it also wasn't clear that they weren't or that they never had been -- or that they wouldn't be tried at school sites in the future. So she decided to do something about it.
Suwol soon met with various environmental and public health organizations to marshal opposition to experimental pesticides in schools: "Everyone was on board that this was a curious loophole."
Assembly member Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando) agreed to author the legislation, which became Assembly Bill 405. Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) backed it, as did organizations including the California Medical Association, the state PTA, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and many others.
An early critic of the effort was the state's own Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), which has responsibility over these matters. At the time, officials there characterized the proposed restrictions as potentially redundant, confusing and over-reaching.
While permission to test can, in fact, be granted to experimental pesticides whose safety has not been determined, these permits "are time-limited, relatively few, and are closely controlled under very specific and restrictive conditions," said Glenn Brank, director of communications for the Department of Pesticide Regulation.
He added that the department "has never allowed an experimental pesticide project at an active school facility, and we never would."
Suwol said she had trouble obtaining data from the department about experimental test sites. Brank insisted, however, that such data is publicly available on request.
As it happens, even the researcher whose comment prompted Suwol's quest contends there was a misunderstanding. This different version of events was reported by a pesticide industry news e-journal on Pesticide.net called Insider, which identified the researcher in question as UC Berkeley entomologist Gail Getty.
Getty told Insider that she did indeed give L.A. Unified a presentation on an anti-termite poison that she was researching called Noviflumuron. But as for the Ventura County school test site, Getty told Insider that it was an abandoned school building fenced off from the public due to extreme termite damage -- though she acknowledged that she did not mention this fact during her Los Angeles presentation. She added that her aim was simply to make LAUSD aware that a potentially helpful product was in the works. In the end, Getty told Insider, her test in Ventura never happened anyway. Noviflumuron received EPA approval in 2004.
Whatever the case, as far as Suwol and the legislation's backers are concerned, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Lawmakers passed AB405 in 2005 and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law. The Department of Pesticide Regulation says it fully supports the new regulations in their present form. The bill was eventually amended to avoid the problem of creating potential legal hurdles if a school used a widely accepted product, such as bleach, in ways not specifically mentioned in regulations.
Suwol's interest in the subject of pesticides dates to 1998, when a worker accidentally sprayed her 6-year-old son, Nicholas, with a weed killer as he walked up the steps of Sherman Oaks Elementary.
"I saw someone in white near the steps," said Suwol, then "Nicholas yelled back at me, 'Mommy, it tastes terrible!'"
Nicholas suffered a severe asthma attack afterward. Suwol started meeting with doctors and scientists, and she began raising concerns with L.A. Unified officials. At first she was treated like one more crazy mom, but she persisted, eventually getting the attention of the school board, where she got backing from board members Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky.
In some cases, she made officials consider the obvious: Why should pesticides be sprayed when children are present?
Today, Suwol heads California Safe Schools, an L.A.-based nonprofit that advocates lower-risk pest control in schools, including barriers and natural predators, and keeping parents and school staff informed when poisons must be used. Its advisory board includes directors of various environmental organizations, including Dr. Joseph K. Lyou of the California Environmental Rights Alliance and William E. Currie of the International Pest Management Institute.
At L.A. Unified, her efforts bore fruit in the 1999 creation of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, which recommends a more holistic approach to eliminating pests and weeds than simply dousing them with poisons. It was before the district's IPM oversight committee, on which Suwol sits, that she first heard from the pesticide researcher and became convinced there was a problem that needed to be addressed.
The governor's office and others, Suwol said, "recognized that this was a situation that, even if it happened in just a few instances, should be stopped."