During the public-comment portion of Tuesday’s Santa Barbara Unified School District board meeting, two parents claimed that several students and staff experienced headaches, nausea, malaise, and inability to concentrate after smelling a strong sulfur- or garlic-like odor in several classrooms at La Colina Junior High School on September 17.
Dr. Janette Hope and Dr. David Shapiro, members of PEPS (Parents for Excellence in Public Schools), said these symptoms could be attributed to the unauthorized use of zinc phosphide (ZP) pesticide to control the school’s squirrel population in August two weeks before school started.
Superintendent David Cash spoke about the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, explaining that Agra Turf, the contractor that spread the pesticide, was supposed to apply a different pest-control substance but instead applied ZP on five campuses without the district’s knowledge. To remedy the mistake, Cash said, the district carried out inspections at La Colina and La Cumbre Junior High Schools, Open Alternative School, Alta Vista Alternative High School, and Monroe Elementary School.
Reading from a statement, Cash said the ZP pellets were vacuumed off turf and disposed of off campus, and the areas where they were applied were covered with mulch based on recommendations from the county’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. The Worker Health and Safety branch of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation confirmed that the areas do not pose a health hazard and that the pellets have disintegrated, Cash said.
Cash said the district is only aware of two complaints of odors on September 17 and attributed those to a faulty gas regulator. That regulator was replaced and taken care of in a timely manner, he said, and was not connected to the pesticide application.
A letter dated September 13 was sent out to notify parents and staff of the pesticide misuse and subsequent remedy at the six schools. At the meeting, Cash noted that an integrated-pest-management consultant affirmed the letter’s accuracy.
Shapiro called for the district to send a second letter to parents, emphasizing the connection between the reported odors and symptoms and potential toxicity of ZP. Shapiro also asked for transparent discussion about the problem to occur in a timely manner.
Shapiro and Hope argued that the letter falsely reassured parents and undermined the toxicity of ZP. The Board did not discuss the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, because it was not on the agenda, but its members said the district will work one-on-one with any concerned parents, share feedback, and continue to stay in touch with the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.