As parents we are so busy running around between school, sports, and planning for dinner that it’s easy to go about our lives without really paying attention to what is going on in our environment. I was one of those parents. But one day, I noticed a yellow sign in front of my children’s school announcing an application of Roundup Powermax™ to the campus. Kids were digging with their hands in the dampened dirt of the tree well where that sign was posted while waiting for pickup. I thought, “If those kids are like mine, they will be handed a snack when they get in the car on their way to whatever activity is on their schedule, without washing their hands.” There were dozens of parents and kids walking around, and no one was noticing the sign, or the fact that the kids were playing right beside it. The sign was invisible. This was alarming!
Having learned from farmers, scientists and pediatricians who speak about GMOs that Roundup is substantially more toxic than advertised, I started to wonder how much of it they were applying, and how often, and what else was being sprayed around students. Like many parents of children with health issues who constantly battle to keep their environment and their food clean, I knew this was important. After going out of my way to purchase organic food that was improving their conditions, why had I not noticed all of the spraying going on around them? Those yellow notices were everywhere on the different school campuses and around our city. I inquired with our district, and I found out that in actuality quite a bit was being applied, and everyone seemed to think it was perfectly safe. They provided the amounts in ounces, but I learned from a farmer that those ounces created gallons of Roundup™. Though employees were required to wear gloves and masks for application (with a shower to follow) while our kids were in class, somehow when the bell rang at 3:00 the moistened soil was seemingly “safe” to touch.
I had several meetings with maintenance, brought in warning letters from scientists and pediatricians addressed to the district, and even brought in a crop expert, to no avail. At the same time, as PTA Board Chair for Health and Safety for our district, I had invited a farmer and a pediatrician to educate our district’s presidents about the risks of using Roundup and pesticides around our children. After the World Health Organization came out with thethat Roundup® is a probable carcinogen, the presidents agreed to request that the school board stop the use of toxic pesticides in favor of organic and less toxic options. The district finally agreed to stop applying Roundup®, which was a giant step in the right direction.
Then a really great thing happened: other parents came forward, and a team was formed!
Our board consisted of five parents, each of whom brought individual talents. One mom had a child who was being treated for a rare form of brain cancer, and she had been working with another mother, who had suffered miscarriages, to encourage their homeowner’s association to stop pesticide applications in their neighborhood. A PTA father stepped forward who had retired from a career in city management, and another mother with a marketing background had been managing a fitness program for kids and had noticed the yellow signs around the turf. We came up with a plan.
We decided about branding and how we would present ourselves to the community in a professional way. We set up a Facebook page, created a website, and started apetition addressed to the school board as well as to the city council. With each signature, a notice was sent to each of the officials, so they would know that there was community support for our request. We contacted a scientist, Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University, who had recently put out a Youtube video entitled “Little Things Matter” based on his study about the cumulative damage of multiple chemicals on children. He provided us with a logo that was similar to his own. Two professors from the University of California, Irvine; an expert in epidemiology, and an expert in developmental and cell biology, agreed to support our cause and signed on as board advisors. We got press coverage. We contacted Beyond Pesticides as a source for studies, and they gave us a training grant for our school district’s crew so they would have solutions other than those taught by pesticide dealers (which is the norm). After we had gathered a few hundred signatures we met with city officials. One of the professors agreed to accompany us. His presence and direct answers to questions posed by the mayor and council members were invaluable.
At first, school staff was reluctant to try alternative methods. The chemical solutions they were using seemed to work well, and they were under the mistaken impression that if a product is listed by the EPA it must be safe (in fact, products are listed because they are toxic). It was not until our school district employees went up to visit the Los Angeles Unified School District, which had been helped by Beyond Pesticides to vastly reduce their chemical use, that they understood it was possible. Our district staff agreed to go even further with the reduction of toxic products in Irvine. This was critical, because we were then able to go to the city to tell them that the school district was moving ahead with a non-toxic program. Support for the city policy change was headed up by Council Member Christina Shea, a cancer survivor. We went into the city council meeting not knowing how the mayor or the other council members might vote. We encouraged many community members to attend the meeting where this issue had been placed on the agenda. Many parents and children spoke in favor of organic practices at the podium. Several families of children with cancer attended, and the 2 minute presentations went on for quite a while. Speakers were overwhelmingly in favor. Then came our moment: the vote. We saw the green lights go on and it was a unanimous YES! Step by step we had convinced the authorities to adopt a toxin-free policy for the sake of our children and our community. Now the signs around our parks and schools say that they are applying organic products!
Robyn O’Brien often says, “Everyone can do one thing.” It would be wonderful if people came forward everywhere to do this in their towns to start a nationwide movement. We need to focus not only on what’s in our cupboard, but also what is going on on the sports fields, for the welfare of our children. There are consultants who can teach your community staff how to change what they are doing in a cost-effective way. Chip Osborne of Osborne Organics trained our district staff. Tom Kelly of Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care is another excellent resource. Beyond Pesticides has a website that is an amazing resource for scientific studies. It is urgent that we encourage everyone to focus upon the well-being of children, pets, and community members, and it is time to begin spreading awareness about what is in that “weed and feed” being used so casually around our most vulnerable. The support of our local professors and Beyond Pesticides was invaluable in convincing officials that dropping toxins from our environment is of paramount importance. Forming a team with multiple talents, and moving forward in a professional way using press and petitions to raise community support before approaching officials was also important. For more information and to receive a plan for how you can do this in your town, please visit Non Toxic Communities on Facebook or visit our website at.
Kathleen Hallal lives in Irvine, California and is active in her community school district and PTA, spreading awareness about helping children with chronic health issues. Like many in their generation, her boys suffer from food allergies and autoimmune issues, although they have no family history of such conditions. She is now working to support others who are interested in encouraging their towns to employ organic practices at.