A Mother Navigates Trust, Fear in a Schoolyard Chemical Soup

Marcia Cummings lives in Oxnard

What parent wouldn't be proud and amazed if her daughter asked to forego her summer vacation to earn an additional high school credit? This way, she said, she could take another course during the regular school year in the field she loves. Her school has a fine reputation for academics, and I've been pleased with the enthusiasm of the teachers as well as the students.

But my happiness was short-lived. This past year I had been reading stories about methyl bromide, a chemical used in farming. The articles warned that my two daughters' school, Rio Mesa High School, is the second most exposed to this chemical in the whole state.

Methyl bromide is applied once a year to the huge strawberry fields that surround the school and come right up to the edge of the campus. As I drove my daughter to class, I became concerned when I saw the farm workers spreading enormous lengths of plastic across the fields because I believed that this meant they were preparing to inject the methyl bromide. I knew little else.

As a parent who (like most parents) has been concerned about both my daughters' health since their prenatal days, I began to research the chemical, hoping that my summer student would be out of school before the poison was used or that it would be safe.

What I learned was more than alarming. To a parent, it was terrifying. And I became very angry.

I found that the chemical is incredibly poisonous and that it was possible that my daughter could be exposed. I also learned that the workers were injecting the poison as they laid out the plastic--while my daughter was in class and while she was outside another three hours a day practicing "tall flags" for the band. Up to 350 pounds of methyl bromide per acre are applied and up to half of that can escape into the atmosphere.

I found that there is invariably a "drift." When one northern California school was tested 24 hours after application at the so-called "safe" legal distance, there was still methyl bromide in the playground at 10 times the so-called "safe" level. It was still in the air when the children went back to school on Monday, even though the poison had been applied on Saturday.

More than 67,000 pounds of the chemical are applied within 1 1/2 miles of Rio Mesa school each year. Application occurs only once a year, and it kills virtually everything in the soil--every organism and microorganism--in just a few days. The huge dose of this lethal chemical potentially inhaled by the young people at summer school is not spread out over the year; it occurs within a period of a few weeks. Adding to that, there can be a residue in the soil and other nearby items, such as children's toys.

Numerous hazards of the poison are documented. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a Category 1 acute toxin--a designation reserved for the most dangerous substances. About 500 parts to one million parts in the air will kill a rat within six hours. It can affect the reproductive, nervous and respiratory systems, the liver, kidneys, heart and eyes. It may cause birth defects. Officials may tell you that they haven't proven the amounts probably drifting near our children will cause any damage. But how dare they risk any child to be exposed to a chemical this poisonous--in any dose.

And this is not the only dangerous chemical. Young people like mine in California are going to school in a pesticide soup. In only 2 1/2 months in 1998, one of the several farms near Rio Mesa applied different chemicals 41 times. In 1997 another farm applied them a total of 141 times. The required safety measures may not always be followed, and in some circumstances chemicals that haven't even been tested can be applied.

I have observed a visible spray being applied to a field in a hard wind blowing directly toward the students as they headed for morning class. What was the spray? Is it any wonder that at one time fully half of the special education students at Rio Mesa had asthma?

The question for me was whether my daughter had any of the symptoms of early acute methyl bromide poisoning. She was coming home extremely fatigued. She was irritable. Right after school she refused to eat and she went right to bed and slept--for hours. She complained of a sore throat. I found that many of the early symptoms of methyl bromide poisoning can be confused with those of flu or a cold.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have had her tested right away (within 36 hours). But the tragedy of such exposure is that the long-term effects are not known--yet.

No one informed me about methyl bromide, and I can only assume that no one has informed other parents. We don't investigate because we want to believe those who hold positions of trust. And even though Rio Mesa school is said to be more exposed to pesticides than any other in California, the teachers are either afraid to discuss the pesticides issue or are uninformed themselves.

Although a new regulation requires agriculture to inform schools when dangerous pesticides are to be applied, the law is ineffective if no steps are taken to protect young people. And no one informs the parents so that they can take steps of their own.

Even though methyl bromide, which is also destroying the ozone layer, is supposed to be banned nationwide in three years, that would not be soon enough to protect my girls at this school.

Strawberries are a valuable crop--worth millions. But what is the value of our very own children?

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