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Los Angeles School District to Ban Pesticides and Weedkillers
Health: Parents, activists spur school officials
       to approve less toxic methods.

Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, March 24, 1999

By LOUIS SAHAGUN, Times Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday adopted a
new pest control policy that will phase out the use of dangerous
pesticides and herbicides over the next three years.

     The plan, described as one of the most stringent in the nation, calls for patching cracked walls in kitchens and classrooms and steam cleaning behind ovens and refrigerators where pests breed, banning food in most areas, improving sanitation procedures and hiring more gardeners to pull weeds rather than spray them.

     The new policy sets Los Angeles apart from most districts across the state that do not embrace so-called least toxic management policies. A survey of 556 schools conducted in 1993 by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation found that 62% had no such pest management plan.

     Until Tuesday, the 661-campus Los Angeles district used nearly 60 pesticides, most of which are not available to the public.

     "This is a big deal. Our policy will be a national model for other jurisdictions," said Yi Hwa Kim, district deputy director of environmental health and safety. "I'm not a physician. But our goal is to eventually see a marked improvement in student safety."

     Julie Crum, district director of maintenance and operations added, however, that in a district with 800 campuses and administrative sites, "the biggest challenge will be just maintaining cleanliness."

     On hand to witness Tuesday's unanimous vote by the Los Angeles Board of Education were dozens of parent activists and physicians who over the past year had pressured the district to remove pesticides from campuses. Many of them wore yellow badges with the words "Schools Are for Kids, Not Poisons."

     "This is the most stringent policy in the nation, and it turns on its head the former practice of banning substances molecule by molecule," said Dr. Kirk Murphy, a spokesman for Physicians for Social Responsibility and one of those who helped draft the new regulations. "The indoor use of pesticides could be eliminated within two years, and the outdoor use of herbicides could end within three years.

     "The biggest problem facing district officials in agreeing to adopt the plan," he added, "was finding funds to pull weeds instead of dousing them with Roundup."

     Also in the audience was Robina Suwol, who exactly one year ago watched her 6-year-old son walk through a toxic fog at Sherman Oaks Elementary School. A few days later, the boy had trouble breathing.

     On that day, she said, "a new activist was born."

     "First, I made a covert call to district officials and asked, 'I love the way that school yard looks. What are you spraying with?' " recalled Suwol, an actress. "Then I jumped on the Internet and looked up the chemical, Princep. Nasty stuff."

     Also on the Internet, she learned the names and telephone numbers of organizations dedicated to ridding schools of carcinogenic compounds. Ever since, she has been a stalwart member of several organizations whose members gathered Tuesday to savor victory.

     For them, it culminated months of personal time spent researching dozens of chemicals and their manufacturers, combing through district records, appearing at endless meetings, and fighting what initially seemed a massive, intransigent bureaucracy.

     "We've been a little force to behold," Suwol said. "They tried to wear us down. But we were politely persistent."

     The new policy, which was modeled after a similar one embraced by San Francisco two years ago, formally recognizes that "no pesticide product is free from risk or threat to human health," and places the burden on chemical manufacturers to prove their products are safe rather than on the public to prove there is harm.

     It also calls for extensive staff training and the creation of a Pest Management Team that will include parents, teachers, community groups, health professionals and district officials. Any product used by the district will have to be approved by this team after a careful review of contents, precautions and low-risk methods.

     The total cost of the program will include $2.5 million for first-year implementation and $1.3 million annually thereafter. That includes funding to hire 15 gardeners and buy equipment for manual weeding.

     The policy is likely to generate work "for years to come," Crum said. "We used to deep clean kitchens at year-round schools every other year. Now, we'll do all schools twice a year."

     Given that least-toxic pest programs have proved less expensive than traditional methods, the district expects to save money by eliminating chemicals and power spraying equipment and installing various barriers to prevent entry of ants, cockroaches and termites.

     Improved health among students might be harder to gauge. But a recent report titled "Failing Health: Pesticide Use in California Schools," pointed out that the overall incidence of childhood cancer increased 10% between 1974 and 1991, making cancer the leading cause of childhood death from disease.

     About 4.8 million children under the age of 18 have asthma, the most common chronic illness in children. Numerous scientific studies have linked both cancer and asthma to pesticide exposure.

     Yet, "we turned up LAUSD records showing gross misuse of application formulas for these chemicals," Suwol said. "Sometimes they mixed batches three times stronger than they were supposed to."

     Others who worked hard to have the district scrap its pesticides included Christina Graves, an organizer with the nonprofit group Pesticide Watch; James Barnard, professor of physiological science and medicine at UCLA; resident Yvonne Nelson, and bookkeeper Helen Fallon, a self-described "LAUSD termite eating at the district's very foundations from within."

     "The fervor that mothers such as Robina and Helen brought to this issue sparked the whole process," Murphy said, "and curbed the tendency of the district to avoid dealing with this issue."

     Graves, a professional activist, agreed.

     "Our next battle," Graves said, "is making sure they implement the policy."

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved


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