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State Tests Find Pesticide on Campus

Health: Outbreak of symptoms at Mound School followed spraying at nearby orchard last week. Prosecutors gather evidence for possible legal action.


VENTURA — State tests have revealed that small amounts of a noxious pesticide drifted onto Mound School during spraying last week of a nearby lemon orchard, results that will be turned over to Ventura County prosecutors for use in an ongoing investigation.

The results came as no surprise to parents at the east Ventura school, who on Tuesday urged the Board of Supervisors and school district trustees to back a budding campaign to outlaw the use of all pesticides near campuses.

Two children went home last week and dozens of other students and teachers complained of dizziness, headaches and nausea following the early-morning application of the insecticide Lorsban on the citrus orchard across the street. No such problems were reported at neighboring Balboa Middle School.

Susan Johnson, pesticide deputy for the county's agricultural commissioner, said Tuesday that state regulators confirmed the presence of the pesticide on two swabs taken at the school shortly after the application.

More test results are expected in coming days, Johnson said, and all of the evidence will be turned over to the district attorney's office, which is in the process of determining whether any laws were broken.

"They are waiting on information from us to build a case," said Johnson, adding that her office could cite and fine the grower up to $1,000.

Gary Auer, chief of the district attorney's bureau of investigation, confirmed Tuesday that the matter had been referred to his office for review. He cautioned that the inquiry is in its early stages. After all the facts are gathered, prosecutors will decide if criminal or civil action is appropriate, he said.

Citrus grower Dan Campbell, who has sprayed the 200-acre grove for 25 years without incident, could not be reached Tuesday for comment. But last week he said he did not believe any drift took place, and if it did, was accidental.

Nevertheless, Campbell agreed not to spray near the school during school hours.

That concession was of little comfort to parents, teachers and administrators at Mound School, who have grown increasingly alarmed about the potential risks of pesticide applications near the campus.

Mary Haffner, a mother of two Mound students and board member with Community & Children's Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning, said she is especially concerned about the use of Lorsban, an insecticide banned for most household uses by the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year. According to the EPA, exposure can cause nausea, dizziness, confusion and, in extreme cases, respiratory paralysis and death.

Haffner said that because the chemical can still be used in agriculture, and because growers can apply it without notifying the school or agricultural officials, she called Tuesday on county leaders and school board officials to outlaw use of it and other pesticides within a 1 1/2-mile radius of schools.

"It's just wrong to have a school so close to such a concentrated application of such a toxic pesticide," Haffner said. "Somebody has got to take responsibility for this and something has got to change."

Ventura schools Supt. Joseph Spirito said the issue has highlighted the need for better communication between farmers and school officials in such issues.

But he said it also points up a flaw in SOAR growth-control measures, land-use laws he strongly supports.

Campbell has said even though his farm was there first, he'd be willing to convert it to a more compatible use such as homes or apartments. But he said the growth-control laws, adopted in Ventura and across the county, have so restricted conversion of the farmland that he believes it would be almost impossible to do anything other than farm.

In light of that, Spirito said the school district must do everything it can--from lobbying for buffer zones to pushing to outlaw dangerous pesticides--to ensure that students are not at risk.

"I have empathy for farmers and growers; I know they are trying to make a living," he said. "But not at the expense of student safety."

Mound parent Richard Francis, co-architect of the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiatives, said there's no question that having farms next to schools causes tremendous difficulties for both sides.

But he said those predicaments existed long before SOAR came on the scene.

The key now, he said, is to work to create safer pesticides and find other ways for the two to coexist.

"It's not unusual in other environs for people to work with the elements: There are snow days in the East, maybe there should be spray days in the West," Francis said. "What's important is to ensure that the farmer has a right to farm and that students are safe when they go to school."

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