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Who Will Protect the Children at School?

Rob Corley is president of the Mound Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization

On Nov. 8, parents at Mound Elementary School and Balboa Middle School learned that their children had been exposed to a powerful pesticide while at school. Their responses have ranged from concern to anger to disbelief.

“This can’t happen here!”

“They have laws against this, don’t they?”

“Why didn’t anyone call so I could evacuate my child?”

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“The orchard has been there for a long time, why is he spraying now when school is in session?”

“Is the school safe--yet?”

Nearly 100 parents, neighbors and others attended an information meeting Nov. 13. Some parents were so concerned that they kept their children home from school for several days.

Mound and Balboa occupy adjacent campuses on the west side of Hill Road in Ventura, just north of California 126. Mound has 575 students in grades kindergarten through five; Balboa has more than 1,200 students in grades six through eight. On the east side of Hill Road is a lemon orchard and land that has been planted with various crops for decades. The orchard is subject to the Ventura Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative, and use of the land cannot change until 2025 without voter approval.

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Unlike many farmers, this orchard’s owner has not been a model neighbor. This is not the first time sprays have drifted. Communication between him and the school has been close to nonexistent; his efforts to schedule spraying when students were not present have been minimal at best. Nonetheless, he has a legal right to farm. In practice, for the most part the schools and the orchard have quietly gotten along for decades--Mound was built in 1952, Balboa in 1960.

On Nov. 8, a school day, the grower used a speed sprayer to fog the lemon trees to kill ants and scale, pests that can damage the fruit. The sprayer is known for causing large-scale drift, and it did. Strong pesticide odor was immediately noticeable on the Mound School campus more than 100 feet past the orchard fence.

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The chemical sprayed was Lorsban, a member of the chlorpyrifos pesticide family. Last spring, the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned Lorsban for sale to homeowners because of documented harm to infants and children.

The school immediately contacted the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner, who has jurisdiction over agricultural spraying operations. Students were kept inside all day while staff and outside authorities figured out what to do. The grower agreed to delay further spraying until Saturday.

Reports from parents indicate that about 40 children showed classic symptoms of exposure to or poisoning by Lorsban. About a dozen adults also reported symptoms, from mild to severe. Some children remained sick five days later. Samples taken by the county indicated that the pesticide had drifted onto the Mound School campus.

As a parent, I was shocked to learn that the county Agricultural Commissioner is blocked by state law from regulating use of this pesticide in agricultural settings. Lorsban is not on California’s list of “restricted” farm chemicals.

The commissioner’s staff has been extraordinarily responsive. They have visited the site many times and have done what they can under the limits of state law.

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The Ventura County Health Officer did what he could to notify area physicians of possible pesticide-related illnesses but under state law has no jurisdiction until there is a public health emergency.

The city of Ventura has almost no jurisdiction over farm operations. The agricultural associations are concerned but can’t tell their members what to do. The state can’t act because Lorsban is not on the right list, and the feds have delegated enforcement to the states.

So, who is protecting our kids at school?

In the case of Mound Elementary, parents--many of whom work for the county or in the medical professions--are able to take on the system. They have demanded action by the Ventura Unified School District and gotten it. The farmer has been cited and may be fined, completed the spraying on a Saturday and promised to alert the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office before any future spraying. The school board supports a solution. Press coverage has been thorough and timely.

This level of response is largely due to a group of individuals committed to protecting all children from pesticides. Parents Mary Haffner, Lynda Uvari and others deserve special thanks for getting on the phones, monitoring spraying, providing information and organizing the parent information meeting.

Our school has gotten action. Its campus has been tested, the streets and curbs swept and washed down and school is getting back to normal. Parents here won’t drop the issue until something is changed to prevent future poisoning.

Parents throughout Ventura County need to pay attention and ask questions:

* Know what chemicals are used on the properties near your child’s school and bus stop.

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* Ask how the school and district management would deal with an emergency.

* Make sure the school has a phone number on file where you can be reached during the day.

* Learn the symptoms of pesticide exposure. Sometimes flu-like symptoms aren’t the flu. Skateboarding through a cloud of Lorsban can make a child or teen ill for several days.

This issue will visit us again and again as houses creep into agricultural areas and farmers work small parcels in the resulting farming and housing checkerboard. This pattern, locked in by land-use policy and ordinances, reflects the inconsistent views of many voters. We love the vistas and open spaces provided by farms and orchards but hate the farm vehicles on “our” roads. We love the “locally grown” label but buy what’s on sale, and we prefer fruit without blemishes.

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SOAR put voters in the driver’s seat on whether to allow farmland to be rezoned for other uses, but we don’t have a clear map of how homes, businesses, schools and farmers are supposed to get along. Land-use policies need to be part of the discussion because sometimes neighbors can’t tolerate what is happening next door, as is the case with sloppy pesticide spraying and drift.

We must work to make sure the incident at Mound and Balboa isn’t repeated at these or other schools in Ventura County. But protecting schools is only one aspect of the problem. Rules designed with only that goal in mind won’t protect children of farm workers living near or on farms, or the farm workers themselves.

When the 8 a.m. school bell rings Monday morning, Mound Elementary will largely be back to normal. Many parents are wiser but shocked at the gaps in the system. They are angry enough to carry on this fight.


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