Students' chemical research raises stir

The high schoolers say levels of farm chemicals near a school are too high.

Published March 27, 2007

HASTINGS - A high school science project has created concern among some parents in this small community after its teenage authors concluded that chemicals from neighboring cabbage farms are contaminating the air near a new elementary school.

Administrators at South Woods Elementary School say the conclusions reached by Alex Lowe and ReAnna Greene, both 17, are flawed and speculative and causing unnecessary alarm in the community. The students did receive significant assistance from a group that's opposed to pesticide use.

Still, the St. Johns County School District has hired a Jacksonville firm to do more testing to confirm pesticide and herbicide levels at South Woods remain safe. It hopes to have results soon.

Neither Lowe nor Greene plans a career in science. Nor did they start out to cause a stir in this town of 631 about 20 miles southwest of St. Augustine. They had planned to do a project on sea grasses, but it fell through.

Their science teacher at Pedro Menendez High School, Karen Ford, suggested they do a project on pesticides after hearing a presentation by Susan Kegley, a researcher at the Pesticide Action Network North America, or PANNA.

The Environmental Youth Council, a club for St. Johns County high school and college students, paid PANNA for the testing equipment. The club also sent Ford and Lowe to California to receive training from PANNA.

The students and their teacher decided to test the air at South Woods Elementary, which opened in August 2005 and has 598 students. The school sits in the middle of cabbage fields - the area grows half of the state's crop.

They approached school officials about setting up air samplers on campus, but were turned away. So they went to Sarah Barker. She owns a home about a third of a mile from the school, where her daughter is in second grade. She said she's worried because the cabbage farm sprays chemicals almost daily.

To collect their samples, Lowe and Greene used a drift catcher, where tubing attached to a small pump pulls in air and traps it in a resin. Once a day, the tubes were placed in ice and sent off for analysis paid for by PANNA. The students and Ford say the wind generally blew toward the school, so they believe their sample is similar to what would be found at South Woods.

According to the students, the results showed the pesticides diazinon and trifluralin and the herbicide endosulfin are in the air near the school. The Environmental Protection Agency decided in 2000 to phase out residential use of diazinon. Endosulfin can affect hormones that regulate growth and development, the agency says. Trifluralin is a possible carcinogen.

But school officials say testing was done on the site before the school was built and that the air was found safe.

"I am upset that the conclusions drawn ... are causing fears in our students, parents, faculty and community," principal Brian McElhone said in a letter sent home to families.

Mark Mossler, a University of Florida pesticides expert, said he doubts the validity of the testing and said the chemicals are needed to protect the state's valuable agricultural industry.

Ray Chavira, an EPA researcher, said the drift catcher is sound technology, if the girls used it properly.

County school board member Tommy Allen said he doesn't believe the school is in danger and said there have been no reports of illness from the pesticides.

"I would have to be showed it by testing. I am concerned about the hype it has created," Allen said. "It is like shouting 'Fire' in a theater."