“In November of 2006, after the neighboring fields had been sprayed, sixty-one students were sent to the health room complaining of headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness. Thirty-seven were sent home. The spraying continued, as did the illness spikes throughout the year.” — Testimony of Wendy Tannery, teacher at Waimea Canyon Middle School on Kauai, at 2008 state Senate hearing

In May 2007, Kahuku High and Intermediate Schools were closed for three days “after 15 students were sickened by pesticide drifting from a nearby turf farm,” according to the Honolulu Advertiser.

In January 2008, after smelling something described as “garden fertilizer” 60 students of Waimea Canyon Middle School were sent to the health room, and eventually 12 people were sent to the emergency room “to be treated for nausea, burning eyes, difficulty breathing, vomiting, headache, diarrhea and extreme dizziness. . . . The following week parents, students, faculty and staff received a letter from the principal informing us that the field adjacent to the campus would be sprayed with Lorsban, an insecticide” (Tannery Testimony).

That’s some of the history of how pesticide spraying has endangered our schools. There’s a parallel history of failed efforts to do something about it, which includes some opposition to those efforts that might surprise you.

Kauai pesticides, mana march, protective equipment

A Kauai protestor opposes pesticide use by seed companies.

Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

Out of concern for the safety of students and employees, state Sen. Gary Hooser of Kauai introduced  SB 3170 during the 2008 legislative session. SB 3170 primarily intended to create a pesticide-free buffer zone around schools.

Despite written testimony from teachers, families and physicians who experienced or witnessed the negative health impacts first hand, despite the Hawaii State Teachers Union convincing a court to issue a temporary injunction to stop Syngenta from spraying pesticides in the field next to Waimea Canyon Middle school, and despite the DOE’s own admission that it was “very cognizant of recurring problems that have been created on school campuses by the spraying of chemicals on nearby land,” the DOE submitted testimony in opposition to SB 3170.

Then-Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto testified that the “Department of Education believes this bill goes too far.”  She explained that the bill would also prohibit the use of pesticides on school grounds and could lead to insect damage and rodent infestation in the schools. She cited the DOE’s use of Integrated Pest Management “an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management.”

SB 3170 never made it through the 2008 Legislature. But it allowed community leaders in Kauai some leverage in convincing Syngenta to permanently move its seed-testing fields farther away from the Waimea Canyon Middle School Campus.

Taking Another Shot at Buffer Zones

How long can these pesticides hang around?

Fast forward five years to 2013, when University of Hawaii researchers confirmed that five restricted use pesticides were still being found in the ambient air of Waimea Canyon Middle School. The study also found that the pesticide DDT was still blowing around the island of Kauai in measurable quantities despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency banned its use in 1973, 40 years earlier.

Hooser, by then a Kauai County councilman, also published his findings in The Garden Island: “Year after year, large agro chemical corporations dump over 18 tons of 22 different types of Restricted Use Pesticides and an additional estimated 80 tons of General Use Pesticides (glyphosate, Round Up and other) into the Kauai environment. These toxic chemicals are often applied in fields near schools, hospitals, houses, streams and sensitive coastal environments.”

Some large landowners who lease land to these agrichemical corporations have been longtime supporters of public education.

How many tons of poison can our ecosystems absorb? How many kinds of poisons can our students and employees absorb?

Since the Legislature failed to pass a bill in 2008, neighbor island counties have taken on the agrichemical giants. But their successes have sometimes been short-lived due to court rulings that such actions should be taken at the state level.

This year, the Legislature is considering a handful of bills that include the creation of buffer-zones around schools, distancing students and employees from the outdoor spraying of certain pesticides by large-scale, commercial entities. (See SB 1197SB 800SB 797SB 793HB 1514 and HB 693.)

Every elected official takes an oath to support and defend the Hawaii Constitution, including the mandate in Article XI, Section 1, to “protect Hawaii’s . . . land, water, air[.]”  That obligation does not seem difficult until we look at what we are protecting our natural resources from, including all the multi-national agrichemical corporations that contributed nearly $8 million toward an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Maui’s GMO ballot initiative last November.

Every Board of Education member takes that same oath of office. BOE members have the added duty to ensure schools are safe for students and employees. (See BOE Vision and BOE Goal #5.) The BOE Student Safety and Welfare Policy states that the DOE shall “safeguard students from the deviant behavior of those who fail to conform to standards of conduct compatible with the best interests of all.”

The 2015 buffer zone bills are written specifically to address large commercial agricultural pesticide users, like the ones spraying near DOE schools in Kahuku on Oahu and Waimea on Kauai. These bills will not prevent the DOE from using its “Integrated Pest Management”; therefore its reasoning for opposing a similar bill in 2008 is no longer valid.

Why Do We Only Hear From Chairman?

Normally, directors of state departments submit their recommended positions on proposed legislation to their governing boards or commissions for approval. In the past, all BOE members were allowed to vote on the DOE’s recommended positions. However, at the beginning of the 2012 legislative session, the BOE voted unanimously to delegate the full breadth of this authority to Chair Don Horner alone. It is not clear whether the motion was meant to stand for just that session, or every year after, but the BOE has never voted on specific bills since.

Deciding whether to support or oppose bills that could keep students and employees from direct exposure to commercial use pesticides may be challenging for the BOE and DOE. Some large landowners who lease land to these agrichemical corporations have been longtime supporters of public education. Furthermore, BOE Chair Don Horner and DOE Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi may find themselves at odds with some of their Hawaii Business Roundtable colleagues if they put the safety of students and employees before corporate profits.

One final point to consider: last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled against the State of Hawaii and held that a DOE employee could collect worker’s compensation “for the aggravation of his asthma resulting from his exposure to vog at work.”

While it is impossible to stop Madame Pele from releasing  her gases into the atmosphere, it is possible to stop Monsanto from spraying restricted-use pesticides and other mystery toxins near schoolchildren and employees.

When the state mandates student attendance and directs employees to work at schools located near these agri-chemical fields, it has a duty to keep them safe from foreseeable and preventable harm.

About the Author

  • Kim Coco Iwamoto
    Kim Coco Iwamoto was elected to the Hawaii Board of Education in 2006 and served until 2011. She also served on the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board from 2009 to 2011 and the Career & Technical Education Coordinating Advisory Council from 2007 to 2011. She was appointed to a four-year term on the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission in 2012.