Firm stops pesticide use near school
Students and teachers at a Kauai institution fell ill after spraying
KAPAA, Kauai » In response to complaints by the teachers union, Kauai's state senator and some parents, Syngenta Seed Co. has agreed to stop spraying pesticides in a field next to Waimea Canyon Middle School.
In a letter to state Sen. Gary Hooser (D, Kauai-Niihau) delivered Thursday, Jeff Cox, president of NAFTA Seeds, a division of Syngenta, said that while it has gone beyond any federal or state regulations regarding pesticides, "community concerns continue."
Syngenta will stop spraying the field adjacent to the school until 2009, Cox continued, "in good faith, and to allow for a calming period for science-based discussion to continue."
As a result of the letter, Hooser said, the Senate moved forward his bill, SB 3170, without the original intent: to make it illegal to spray pesticides within a certain distance of elementary schools. Instead, a working group of government officials, members of the agriculture industry and other interested parties would monitor incidents of pesticide use possibly causing incidents at schools and issue a report in 2009.
The discussion arose after two incidents at the west side middle school -- one in 2006 and another last month -- when a noxious odor made dozens of students and teachers sick. Last month a dozen people went to the hospital because of the stench.
Officials from the Department of Agriculture and the county have blamed the stench on a weed, the wild spider flower, or stink weed.
But Hooser, the teachers union and a handful of parents have not been convinced, and blame Syngenta's use of the pesticide Warrior on the field directly north of the school.
State Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said this week that the company had sprayed their pesticide, Warrior, on the day prior to the students getting sick in January. But they had done so, Okubo added, in accordance with the instructions on the bottle and after school, in accordance with an agreement with the Department of Education.
Tom Perry, Kauai director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, had gone to court to get a temporary restraining order keeping Syngenta from spraying the field after the incident last month. But, without any evidence, the judge dismissed the request.
"We need to find out for sure what's poisoning our students and our teachers," Perry said. "We need to get to the bottom of this."
Hooser and Perry have asked the Department of Health to do some "base-line" testing of students now, so that when and if the students get sick again, they will be able to accurately determine what has made them sick.
But Okubo said that is not likely to happen.
It is not the state's job to provide testing to find out what made the students sick, and any blood tests done would provide none of the information the teachers union is looking for, she said. No tests exist to find a Warrior-type pesticide in the blood.
To find out what is wrong with you, "you would go to your private physician," she added.
In 2006 the Department of Agriculture did extensive testing of the school to find any traces of pesticides, Okubo continued. None were found.
"In this case there could be a number of factors," she added, including, "possibly hysteria."
Teachers have told Perry that they know what the weed looks like and how it smells, he said. And they are sure the source of the trouble is a much different odor.
"This is an incident where (students) went away in ambulances," Hooser added. "I'm disappointed the Department of Health hasn't taken this seriously."