Vanessa Handy's dad navigated transport planes in Vietnam amid toxic clouds of Agent Orange, a wartime herbicide linked to certain cancers.
When Handy told her dad that a weed killer routinely used at schools contained one of the chemicals found in Agent Orange, he replied, "Oh, that's not good."
Handy started what's grown into an anti-pesticide mission. The Costa Mesa mother of two convinced Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials to scrap herbicides in favor of non-toxic alternatives, such as weed whackers, as a test project last year at Davis Magnet and Newport Elementary, the schools that Handy's fourth-grader and sixth-grader attend.
Handy, 41, would like to see the pesticide ban spread districtwide.
"I'm just a mom trying to do the right thing," Handy said.
The idea of creating pesticide-free zones at schools may have launched in PTA meetings, but it has made its way into courtrooms.
A lawsuit filed Jan. 22 by environmental groups and parents challenged the California Department of Food and Agriculture's approval of a statewide pest management plan that allows pesticide spraying on schools, organic farms and residential yards. The plaintiffs allege that the state permits the use of 79 pesticides that cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm.
"This is about routine spraying of toxic herbicides around young children," said Handy, who isn't party to the suit, as she stood recently near a sign staked into the ground at Davis Magnet School that says "Pesticide Free Zone."
"Our children are already so exposed, why would we want to expose them more?"
California Department of Pesticide Regulation oversees schools' use of weed killers and other chemicals grouped under the umbrella term pesticide.
School officials must, among other requirements, inform parents of the pesticides in use at a campus and post warning signs 24 hours before and 72 hours after an application of the chemicals. A new law that takes effect next year will require school districts to submit annual reports on pesticide usage to the state — something that isn't required now.
Newport-Mesa uses several pesticides, including Speed Zone, which contains 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange. The National Pesticide Information Center reported that the controversy regarding the health effects of Agent Orange centered on a different ingredient, 2,4,5-T.
The district also sprays Roundup, the most commonly used herbicide in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Roundup is partly made out of glyphosate, regarded as a hazardous substance by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The chemicals worry Handy.
"We have children with autism, ADHD and childhood cancers, and we wonder why we have to take a look at this?" Handy said. "I'm not attributing it to any one thing, but it's certainly a cause for conversation."
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that children may be particularly susceptible to pesticide toxicity because many of their major organs haven't matured.
Tim Marsh, administrative director of facilities support services, who oversees grounds keeping for Newport-Mesa Unified, said the district has cut its use of pesticides by 80% in the last decade.
He said the preference is to use non-chemical alternatives like weed whackers more frequently but that the garden tool doesn't work well on invasive grasses and nettles.
He said the district's use of Roundup went from 66 gallons in 2010 to 13 gallons in 2014, a 408% drop.
Marsh attributes the districtwide drop to an ongoing push to use less-toxic alternatives, such as curbing the growth of weeds with mulch. He said a misperception among parents is that the district sprays weed killer on a set schedule rather than as weeds emerge.
By definition, the spray-as-needed approach means that the amount of pesticide varies. At Newport Harbor High School, for example, grounds crews sprayed 256 ounces of Speed Zone and 142 ounces of Roundup in the 2012-13 school year. The next year, crews sprayed less Speed Zone (192 ounces) but more Roundup (172 ounces).
Marsh said the district could significantly cut its reliance on weed killers if school fields weren't so heavily used by students and sports teams. If the grass could rest, it would thrive enough to choke out the weeds.
"There's a give and a take for anything," Marsh said.
For her part, Handy suggests replacing fields with artificial turf, something the district is doing on a limited basis at a few high schools. She points to schools across California that switched to organic weed killers.
Concerned about student health, the Las Virgenes Unified School District in Calabasas switched a year or so ago from Roundup to Avenger, a citrus oil-based organic weed killer, according to a school official.
Los Angeles Unified, the state's largest school district, was among the nation's first to curb the use of pesticides, and it applies the chemicals in a way that has won the district awards.
Handy has heard of school districts that even use a homemade spray made of Dawn dishwashing liquid, Epsom salt and vinegar.
To brainstorm alternatives like these, she'd like the district to form an Integrated Pest Management Committee. She said the state Department of Pesticide Regulation provides free training and step-by-step tool kits for the committees.
"There are many ways to skin that cat," Handy said.