Toxic schoolyard

Kids are more vulnerable than adults to pesticides. So why are they still being sprayed at Sacramento schools?

Photo By Andrew Nilsen

On a bright October morning, about a dozen students in Oak Park prepared their school’s organic garden—with its raised flower beds, tomato vines and leafy greens—for the end of harvest. Light winds blew, much like the day last fall when a group of parents and staff working in the same garden noticed a groundskeeper nearby.

He was spraying pesticides during school hours.

Kids were playing outside.

And it wasn’t the first time. Members of the school’s gardening collective, including librarian Lanae Davis and volunteer garden coordinator Goli Sahba, said they’ve witnessed a district groundskeeper applying Roundup on multiple occasions, driving around in a golf-cartlike vehicle, spraying on the school grounds and close to the garden.

“Every time we asked him to stop spraying, he would stop immediately,” said Davis. But then he nicely explained how the local district has 90 school sites to maintain and only so many groundskeepers, and they just don’t have the manpower to pull weeds out by hand.

Afterwards, Sahba and Davis decided to take action and push the school district to cease all pesticide applications on this shared campus of Fruit Ridge Elementary School and the Language Academy of Sacramento.

“People think pesticides are benign because they’re sold everywhere,” Sahba said. “Maybe for adults it’s not a big deal, but kids are more susceptible because their brains and bodies are still developing. Parents haven’t wanted to take that risk, not just for the aesthetics.

“We felt we had to go to the next step. We thought we should stop this.”

Sahba and Davis gathered an informal group and began speaking about the pesticide issue to various local parent associations, advisory committees and administrators. They drummed up support for their cause. In March of this year, the Sacramento City Unified School District agreed to allow the campus to go pesticide-free for a three-month trial.

The local group’s campaign to rid the Oak Park campus of pesticides can be seen as part of a larger parent-led movement to clean up toxins from schools. The statewide effort picked up steam over the past decade and reduced the use of pesticides overall on school grounds. In 2000, Congress passed the Healthy Schools Act, which requires public schools to notify parents about pesticide use and encourages the least toxic pest-control practices.

State law requires that warning signs be posted at school sites 24 hours prior to a pesticide application and remain up until 72 hours after the application.


All of this sounds good in theory. But so far, the majority of school districts, including right here in Sacramento, continue to spray pesticides freely at their school sites.

Chemical schoolyards
The Sacramento City Unified School District lists as a core principle the goal of providing “safe environments for learning” for students. However, district groundskeepers spray a not inconsiderable 200 gallons of pesticides a year to service 500 acres of property. Though the district has decreased its usage from 400 gallons seven years ago, the improvement is one anti-pesticide folks consider a small victory.

Most environmental toxins are unwanted byproducts derived from processes like industrial manufacturing or power-plant and car emissions. But pesticides exist solely to poison and destroy; they are employed precisely because they are toxic to a target. Sometimes, though, a spray misses its target. Chemicals drift on a windy day, or remain in the soil, where kids play and pets dig.

Although pesticides had been used in some form for decades in this country, the rise of the industry didn’t occur until the 1940s and ’50s, after the infamous insecticide DDT was discovered in 1939 and used in World War II to squash mosquitoes carrying malaria. DDT and other poisons created for use as defoliants by the American army during the war were later remarketed for sale to the general public.

Pesticides do have benefits. Insecticides kill insects that transmit diseases and control termites that damage structures. They destroy pests in agricultural fields, preventing crop loss and saving farmers money. Herbicides clear brush on roadways, control algae in lakes to allow for fishing and destroy invasive weeds that cause environmental damage in wilderness areas. Fungicides prevent mold, which can be harmful to our health.

But uncertainty remains about the long-term health effects of synthetic chemicals and the degree to which these toxins penetrate our lives.

One billion pounds of pesticides are applied annually in this country to agricultural crops, schools, parks and homes. Chemicals seep into water supplies and off-gas into the air we breathe. Tens of thousands of physician-diagnosed pesticide-poisoning cases occur each year, although the problem could be greater because this poisoning notoriously goes underreported, as key symptoms—nausea, dizziness, vomiting—resemble the flu. Ingredients in some pesticides have been linked to cancer, respiratory illness and attention-deficit disorder.

“It’s eye-opening for people,” said Paul Schramski, director of Pesticide Watch, an advocacy organization based in Sacramento. “When they see they’re not being protected, they can’t believe it.”

Schramski’s group recently launched a citywide campaign to eliminate pesticide use in public spaces. While the group is in the early stages, members have identified schools as a top priority. In his view, reducing pesticide use should be about our right to live a healthy life. But it’s not.

That’s because it’s also sometimes about the American Dream of a dandelion-free yard and a convenient, cheap solution to pest problems. But perhaps we can’t have both pristine school grounds and protect children’s health. Maybe it’s one or the other.

Parts per trillion
Five years ago, a handful of parents had the bright idea to start an organic garden on the shared campus of Fruit Ridge Elementary School and the Language Academy of Sacramento in Oak Park. Today, the garden boasts 17 raised flower beds covering three-fourths of an acre, where students grow leafy greens, tomatoes, strawberries, peas and more. When berries ripen in the summer, students make smoothies.

Goli Sahba and students work in their organic school garden. Sahba and a group of concerned parents and school staff worked to make the garden and the shared campus of Fruit Ridge Elementary School and the Language Academy of Sacramento a pesticide-free zone.


“They fight over who gets to pull the carrots out,” Sahba said, laughing as she worked in the flower beds on a recent morning.

Mexican medicinal herbs also grow in the garden, reflecting the diverse demographics of the Language Academy’s student body, which is largely Latino. This charter school serves about 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. More than 50 percent are English learners, and their teachers incorporate vocabulary and science lessons into garden excursions, where children also learn about proper nutrition.

“When they grow it, they’re much more open to tasting it,” said Sahba, a family-care physician and the mother of two teenagers.

Born in Iran, Sahba grew up in New Orleans before moving to Orangevale, where her parents produced fruits and vegetables on their land and taught their daughter about gardening. She attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied under Noam Chomsky, which is when she became an activist. After she and her husband moved to Midtown, Sahba began gardening at the now-defunct Ron Mandella Community Garden. She assisted in the struggle to preserve the garden, a battle ultimately lost.

“It was a very hard and stressful situation. We wanted to start a garden in a place where it couldn’t be taken away,” Sahba said. The Oak Park campus offered the perfect spot.

The adults didn’t expect that one day they’d have to deal with pesticides encroaching on this organic space.

In the Sacramento City Unified School District, two widely used pesticides are Roundup and Surflan. Roundup contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as unlikely to be a human carcinogen; however, several studies, including one by the National Cancer Institute, found that exposure to Roundup can lead to an increased risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. Some doctors believe incidents may be related to DNA mutations acquired after birth (rather than being inherited), which may result from exposure to carcinogens. Almost every pesticide application causes some amount of drift—incidents that may occur hours or days later—and Roundup drifts easily.

Surflan contains oryzalin, an herbicide used to control weeds, classified by the EPA as a possible human carcinogen. The chemical is moderately mobile, and a U.S. Geological Survey in 2000 detected oryzalin in rivers, streams or wells in almost half of the river basins the agency tested nationwide. Portions of the chemical break down quickly in soil, while the rest lasts up to three years after application.

In addition to active chemicals, these pesticides contain “inert” ingredients, which under federal law don’t have to be identified on product labels, nor are they included in toxicology tests required for pesticide registration. But the term may be misleading. Inert doesn’t mean “harmless” or “nontoxic,” and inert ingredients found in Roundup and Surflan have been linked to kidney and liver damage and eye and skin irritations.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that most people have more than one pesticide in their bodies. Children absorb more pesticides relative to body weight than adults, and their developing brains, organs, nervous systems and immune systems may be more vulnerable to toxins. The more often a child is exposed to chemicals, the greater the chance of harm, and studies increasingly show that toxic chemicals are harmful to the body even at low doses, as in parts per trillion, said Pesticide Watch’s Schramski.

In fact, federal law prohibits manufacturers from claiming a pesticide product is safe, even when used as directed.

One individual witnessed the spraying of pesticides during school hours at Leonardo da Vinci Elementary School with classroom doors wide open.


Kids as lab rats
Protecting the health of one’s children in public school is no easy feat, as Robina Suwol, a single mother of two in Southern California and executive director of California Safe Schools, found out. One morning 10 years ago, as Suwol dropped her sons off at school in Los Angeles, her 6-year-old son Nicholas turned on the front steps to blow his mom a goodbye kiss. As she blew a kiss back, she heard her son say, “Mom, it tastes terrible.” Suwol saw a man in a hazardous-materials suit spraying something in the direction of the kids.

“It sent chills through my back,” she said. “I knew it couldn’t be water. My concern was that Nicholas was a severe asthmatic.”

At the time, school districts weren’t required to notify administrators if work was being done on the perimeter of the school, so when she called the campus requesting more information, office staff had none to share. Reluctantly, Suwol called the district office and lied out of desperation: She asked what product the district used to keep their yards so beautiful. They told her it was an herbicide called Princep, but warned the product wasn’t available to the public because it required stringent application procedures.

Nicholas suffered an asthma attack later that night and asked his mom if this was going to happen again.

“‘Of course not, it’s not going to happen again,’” Suwol remembers assuring him. “I made that promise to him.”

And so her crusade began. Suwol researched the chemical, learning that the EPA classifies it as a possible human carcinogen. She read a study by Cornell University that found a single exposure to Princep could cause tremors, convulsions, paralysis, slowed respiration, gut pain and diarrhea. She barraged the school district with public-record requests to identify all herbicides applied to campus lawns and insecticides sprayed in classrooms. She led a team that crafted an Integrated Pest Management policy, which focused on long-term prevention and suppression of pest problems.

One year to the day of her son’s asthma attack, the Los Angeles Unified School District—the second largest in the nation—adopted the strictest policy in the country to restrict pesticide use in public schools. They wrote a precautionary principle into the preamble, which said that in the absence of conclusive scientific data regarding the effect of chemicals on children, toxic pesticides should not be used.

The success of the L.A. school district’s policy led to the passage of the Healthy Schools Act, which went into effect January 1, 2001. The act put into place “right-to-know” requirements, so parents and teachers could be better informed of pesticide use.

For anti-pesticide activists, everything seemed to be falling into place. In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 405, which banned the use of experimental pesticides and those with conditional registrations on school grounds. Until then, school districts could legally use harmful pesticides already banned in homes and in the process of being phased out, or those in the process of being developed for the market.

“The 6 million kids in the state of California could no longer be used as lab rats or guinea pigs,” Suwol said of the victory.

Not all has been victorious, though. Back in 2004, a bill prohibiting public schools from using the most highly toxic pesticides failed in Congress after heavy opposition from the chemical industry. While some school districts have reduced the use of more hazardous pesticides, it remains voluntary for school districts to adopt least toxic pest-control practices, so when it comes down to it, if they don’t want to, they don’t have to.

Steven Zien, owner of Living Resources Center, has gardened organically for the past 30-odd years. He says pest prevention doesn’t require the use of hazardous pesticides.


How to kill weeds
Steven Zien loves the Green Bay Packers. Green-and-yellow football paraphernalia sits atop every inch of bookshelf space and countertop in the living room of his Citrus Heights home. Another passion, organic lawn care, expresses itself outside, where native plants adorn his backyard. Zien owns the Living Resources Company, a natural landscaping business.

Zien’s interest in organic gardening developed after reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. During college, he majored in soils, then farmed organically in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin before moving to California for the state’s longer growing season. He’s now regarded as one of the nation’s foremost experts in chemical-free horticulture.

“Everybody is resistant to change,” Zien said. “They’re inundated by chemical agriculture, and the whole industry is so strong in California, saying that this stuff is safe and they work. And I will grant you, if you follow the directions for how the products are supposed to be used, they will work. But they have dire consequences.”

Especially for kids, Zien said, as children play in areas directly exposed to pesticides—playgrounds, backyards, athletic fields. Not to mention residue might adhere to their shoes, which they track into houses and onto carpets, where babies might crawl (chemicals break down more slowly indoors). Additionally, in the classroom, a teacher might spray an insecticide, such as Raid, on a student’s desk, which the child might then touch and get in his or her mouth.

And we’re risking kids’ health for what exactly?

Cockroaches, ants, mice, rats, pigeons and weeds are the most common pests in schools. Local environmental scientist Dave Tamayo said that while Argentine ants pose a big problem, insecticide sprays are not a good way to address the problem because they generally don’t reduce ant populations and lead to unnecessary pesticide exposures. Other methods, such as containerized baits and eliminating ant habitat and food sources are more effective at long-term control.

Pest prevention doesn’t require hazardous pesticides, according to Zien, adding that chemicals may actually increase problems by ruining what Mother Nature created to keep landscapes pest-free.

“The biggest thing would be to educate groundskeepers and managers so they understand what’s going on and how it works,” Zien said. “Unless there’s a full effort, it’s not going to work.”

Under the Healthy Schools Act, the Department of Pesticide Regulation is required to hold trainings for school districts, although attendance by a district’s designated Integrated Pest Management coordinator is strictly voluntary. The state has trained 71 percent of California’s 988 school districts. Of the 13 school districts in Sacramento County, 11 have undergone training, including the Sacramento City Unified School District, according to DPR spokeswoman Lea Brooks. The Natomas Unified and Center Unified school districts have not yet been trained.

The six-hour training, held four times a year, covers measures to make habitats less conducive to pest development. For example, certain plants and turf species repel pests. Gardens located with plenty of open space around them deter rodents who fear raptors. Mow strips along fence lines discourage weed growth. Sealing holes prevents critters from entering buildings.

“We do some heavy training,” said Tommy Greer, assistant foreman for Sacramento’s school district.

Weather dictates how often and when the district sprays; they don’t spray on rainy days, and hot days are the best time. Groundskeepers spray as often as once a week or every 30 days.

“Our goal is to do it when students and staff are not around, but that doesn’t always happen,” Greer said.

Legally, the district may spray during school hours. However, Greer said, if campus administrators or parents express concern, his crews will adjust their schedules, working early or late in the day to accommodate these concerns. Groundskeepers sometimes work on the weekends, but not often, because that constitutes overtime and something the union frowns upon.

The district has implemented some IPM measures, according to Greer, including the use of a nontoxic pre-emergence to stop weed seedlings from germinating. Groundskeepers spread mulch to smother weeds and sometimes use weed eaters. They apply mint-oil as a poison-free way to deal with ants and roaches in the classroom. Reducing pesticides even more won’t be an easy shift. Six crews with two men each maintain 90 school sites—visiting three or four campuses a day—and a handful of administrative sites. When crews spray Roundup, the men are done for a while, but if they opt for a nontoxic method, they’re back every week.

Parents and staff at the Oak Park campus understand this dilemma, experiencing firsthand the physical labor organic lawn care requires. Sahba works in the garden every Thursday, and that’s only to help maintain three-fourths of an acre of land. But for all the labor and hours spent, Sahba and Davis view the campus’s attempt to go pesticide-free as a success.

“It’s working to the folks that want it to work,” Greer said. “But we get calls from the neighbors.”

These neighbors complain about weeds. And because the school district doesn’t want to be perceived as blight on the community, staff has no choice but to respond to complaints or prevent problems in the first place.

Organic lawn care and cleaning systems typically require more startup costs, which doesn’t bode well for the Sacramento City Unified School District, considering in the past seven years, the district was forced to cut $90 million from its budget and expects to have to cut another $5 to $15 million this year based on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal. The district spent $7,000 on chemical products (including pesticides and fertilizers) for the 2006–07 school year. Inner-city schools with rat and cockroaches face a tougher challenge, as addressing these pests nontoxically requires expensive improvements to a school’s infrastructure. However, in the long run, Integrated Pest Management may actually save school districts money.

“IPM should not be thought of as an extra program. You don’t need to separate it from the maintenance program. You can incorporate it into the fabric of the existing program,” explained Sewell Simmons, environmental specialist with the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Meanwhile, DPR says compliance with the Healthy Schools Act has been good. Under the law, each school district must provide written notification to parents and teachers identifying all pesticide products it expects to apply in the upcoming school year. The district must register parents who want to be notified of pesticide applications before they occur, post warning signs at each area where pesticides will be used 24 hours in advance and leave notices up for 72 hours after application. Each school must maintain records of pesticide use for four years and make the records available to the public upon request.

In 2007, 95 percent of school districts in the state posted warning signs and 91 percent provided written notification of expected use. Eighty percent kept a list of parents who asked to be notified. Seventy-four percent of schools kept pesticide records for four years, a requirement that can be fulfilled by keeping a copy of the warning signs posted for each application.

Photo By Andrew Nilsen

But when SN&R called 20 local schools—mainly elementary schools—asking for a copy of the school’s pesticide use for the current school year, none of the schools were able to easily supply this information, and most suggested calling the district office. Some school personnel seemed to have no idea what our reporter was even talking about.

The majority of office staff explained that campuses post notices on front doors, windows or bulletin boards when spraying takes place; most said they throw these notices away after taking them down. Only one school, Crocker-Riverside Elementary School in Land Park, mentioned that they have a list of parents automatically notified by phone when spraying occurs. When asked if spraying occurs during or after school hours, a staff member at one site said, “It varies, but they never spray when kids are outside.”

That may be true for this particular campus. Or maybe not.

Say it, don’t spray it
At Leonardo da Vinci Elementary School in Hollywood Park—another campus with an organic garden—an individual who asked not to be identified said the district has sprayed during school hours with classroom doors wide open. The school has patches of grass running between building wings, which means spraying occurred about 20 yards away from where students sit at their desks.

On the bottom corner of the school’s front entrance is a pesticide notice. There’s always one taped there. The district sprays every Wednesday, according to the sheets, which may or may not actually happen, so office staff just leaves a notice up until it’s replaced by a new one.

Last year, a group of families whose children were graduating from Leonardo da Vinci planted native flowers in the courtyard, using money from a parent whose father had passed away. One day, according to the unnamed source, a district groundskeeper hosed the flower beds with Roundup and wiped out all the plants. As disheartening as this was, what upsets many parents more is that children were exposed to the toxic chemicals. Notices and phone calls suffice for some, but others wonder why the state doesn’t just require districts to create a barrier that keeps children away from treated areas immediately following an application.

“Obviously, if they’re using chemicals that area should be blocked off,” said Jeri Clark, parent-manager of Leonardo’s organic garden.

On a November morning, a handful of first-graders clipped lettuce during recess. Food from the garden supplies the cafeteria’s salad bar and anything extra goes to the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, which mainly happens during summer, when the school grows an abundance of crops. Students recently harvested pumpkins to make pies for Thanksgiving.

“The goal of the garden is to provide habitat for insects and birds, and to produce nutritional food without chemicals,” she explained.

Clark too said she’s occasionally witnessed groundskeepers spraying along the perimeter of the campus and directly on weeds. Although the garden committee has never had a sit-down discussion with the district, she assumes groundskeepers don’t spray pesticides near the garden, because the garden has no weeds to spray. Volunteers host work parties several times a year to maintain the landscape.

“We’re diligent about it, so we’re clean and tidy,” Clark said, waving across the garden. “If anything, we’re making this [campus] better for the neighbors.”

Don’t poison the kids
The pesticide-free trial period for Fruit Ridge Elementary and the Language Academy of Sacramento ended this past summer, which coincided with the entrance of an interim principal who unilaterally wanted to return to spraying pesticides. His reasoning: He wanted the campus to look better—i.e., no weeds—so students would feel valued.

“He used the expression ‘ghettolike,’” Davis said. “He said he was going to reinstate the spraying of Roundup.”

Parents and staff want a tidy-looking campus too, she said, but not at the potential expense of children. Thankfully, the principal listened to Davis and her gardening cohorts and held back spraying during the summer. Now the group hopes the permanent principal’s policy aligns with their vision.

“We realized how vulnerable the school is to being sprayed,” Davis said. “That was a wake-up call.”

Meanwhile, the children continue gardening.

Soon, they’ll plant onions, cauliflower, turnips and other winter crops. Diana Rangel, a sixth-grader at the Language Academy, enjoys working in her school’s garden, mainly, she said, because the food tastes good. Rangel, a pretty, brown-haired girl, tall for her age, finds the sour leaf, grapes and red-blood oranges especially delicious. As she spoke to a reporter at the garden site, a group of about 20 kids swarmed around, eager for a chance to explain why they too appreciate the organic garden. But Diana waited to have the last word. “We learn how the garden helps the world. It makes oxygen, and without oxygen, we wouldn’t live.”

“I got used to eating fruits and vegetables,” Diana said, adding that they never spray pesticides. “We don’t do that, because if we eat that, then we could be contaminated.”