Note from FAN: Sulfuryl Fluoride is a highly neurotoxic fumigant (see health effects). The molecular formula is:
WATSONVILLE >> Plans to tent and fumigate termite-infested Ohlone Elementary were canceled Wednesday after dozens of teachers and staff signed a letter voicing concerns about students’ health.
Sensitivity to pesticide exposure is high among Pajaro Valley residents who have campaigned for years to tighten state laws regarding use of toxic chemicals in the valley’s farmland, successfully lobbying for buffer zones around schools and other restrictions. Advocates say it is especially important to prevent additional exposure to harmful chemicals for the children who live, and go to school, near fields where pesticides are sprayed.
“Students can be exposed to pesticides via the field applications that happen in the agricultural right around them, and adding another possible exposure through this termite extermination was pretty unacceptable for the teachers,” said Lucia Calderón, an organizer with coalition Safe Ag Safe Schools.
Third-grade Ohlone Elementary teacher Melissa Dennis wrote a letter echoing those concerns signed by dozens of her colleagues before it was sent to the district on Wednesday.
Dennis cited years of work by the Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s teachers to keep pesticides away from campuses. “Let’s find an alternative, or at the very least, postpone this application until summer,” she wrote.
Fumigation had been planned for Monday through Thursday as the school is vacant during spring break. The plan developed after termite damage was noticed last semester and confirmed by district maintenance and operations staff, according to the district’s public information officer Alicia Jimenez.
One of the chemicals that would have been used, chloropicrin, is a strawberry fumigant developed as a poison gas in World War I. The other, sulfuryl fluoride, is a colorless, odorless gas that can prove lethal with direct exposure. Pest companies monitor fumigated buildings and test the air to ensure safe levels of the chemicals before allowing occupants to return. While harmful chemical exposures have been documented, they are rare.
But hemmed in to its north and east by farmland, Dennis said respiratory conditions and other grievances are already far too common among Ohlone Elementary’s some 500 students in grades K-5.
“I have a student who missed so much school last year due to asthma that she’s redoing the third grade,” Dennis said. “We have many students with tumors. We have a student who is blind because she had a tumor removed from her brain.”
Children exposed to pesticides are at increased risk of cancer, poorer cognitive functioning and behavioral problems, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Within hours after Dennis’ email, Ohlone Elementary Principal Brett Knupfer emailed his staff saying the fumigation had been canceled due to the concerns.
Why the sudden reversal was not immediately clear, but Dennis and Calderón said it came as welcome news.
In a statement to the Sentinel, Jimenez said that “while the district would have ensured to follow all mandated procedures for safe fumigation, administration honored teachers’ concerns and will seek an alternative date to take care of the damage.”
Fumigation of campuses in Santa Cruz County appears to be done rarely, if at all: Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Kris Munro said that in her two decades with the district she can’t recall a single time they have tented and fumigated school buildings.
Tented fumigation also hasn’t been used in the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, since the district pioneered a progressive pest-management policy after two children were accidentally poisoned March 30, 1998 — coincidentally, 20 years ago Friday.
“I think that we’re in an era right now where asthma and neurological disorders and health impacts, they’re an epidemic right now, especially with children,” said Robina Suwol, the mother of the two exposed children who now leads nonprofit coalition California Safe Schools. “I think because of that, it’s really important to reduce any emission that could cause potential harm.”
Two photos were included in article with these comments:
First photo: Ohlone Elementary School boasts a large contingent of winners at the Santa Cruz County Science Fair in 2011. Plans to fumigate the school were canceled this week after teachers voiced concerns about students’ health. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel file)
Second photo: In this file photo, teachers and activists listen to public comments in December 2016 at the Salinas Sports Complex during a hearing on proposed regulations to limit the use of pesticides around schools. (Claudia Meléndez Salinas — Monterey Herald)