On Wednesday, April 5, Webster Elementary School was scheduled to be tented and sprayed with the toxic chemical compound sulfuryl fluoride (trade name Vikane) for termites, despite pleas from parents and organizations to the school district to postpone the treatment and consider a less toxic method. Webster, like all schools in the district, is on spring break until April 17.
School district spokesperson Gail Pinsker, writing on behalf of Chief Operations Officer Cary Upton, told Webster Elementary staff in an email that other methods to eliminate the pests were not viable. “Webster Elementary School has termites,” the email, dated March 31, explained. “We have monitored and treated termites in specific locations with less toxic pesticides like orange oil. But we also have subterranean termites that don’t respond to less toxic methods.”
At the last minute on Tuesday afternoon, after increasing pressure from concerned parents, Poison Free Malibu and Jennifer deNicola’s reported plan to bring the Department of Agriculture on site, the district cancelled its plans, according to an email sent to parents by Superintendent Ben Drati and shared with The Malibu Times.
“Some new information has emerged with the possibility of using heat to eliminate the termite infestation,” Drati was quoted as saying in the message. “Although we are confident our original plan for fumigation is safe and within the district policy and is not yet ruled out, we have decided to continue to explore the heating process for eradicating termites on our campuses. This new course of action is aligned with the district’s integrated pest management policy.
Several things led to this point.
Parent Jill Hawkins, in a widely distributed email sent to Drati, had requested a halt to the tenting pending further discussion with decision-makers that would include an expert report and evidence that all nontoxic options for termites had been exhausted.
“After receiving two citations from the CA Dept. of Agriculture, we believe SMMUSD is well versed in complying with the Healthy Schools Act and understands its obligation,” Hawkins wrote. “We understand parents are making plans to remove their children post spring break... because environmental reports indicate toxicity levels [from the termite gas] remain in carpet padding, drywall, soft wood, wool fibers, poly cushion fabric, etc.
“We just learned from California Safe Schools that the last time LAUSD used sulfuryl fluoride for termite mitigation was a decade ago,” her email continued. “Since then, heat has been their method of choice. Why is our district not following this nontoxic route?”
Pinsker emailed parent Sherry Martini on April 4 with answers to questions she’d asked on the topic, saying that the school board had never voted on whether or not to treat Webster for termites because it was never an agenda item.
Martini contacted the district because her son suffers from autoimmune issues, which make it more difficult for him to fight off the effects of toxins.
Pinsker stated that the district’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) policy is what guides staff on pest treatment decisions, and the board voted 7-0 for that policy on in December 2015.
In addition, she wrote there were two public comments on termite treatment during a special board retreat held last week, but the item was not on the agenda.
Santa Monica parent Ann Maggio wrote that, in 2015, “Three board members, including Malibu’s Craig Foster, wanted a zero toxin IPM plan, but were outnumbered and had to compromise on a tiered IPM. Dr. Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein pointed out in last Thursday night’s meeting that the IPM in place does nothing - it’s just a check-the-box kind of plan - and then boom, straight to toxic.”
Pinsker pointed out that Juan Cabrillo Elementary School and two schools in Santa Monica had the same termite treatment last year, with “no concerns or complaints raised, and no health effects reported following treatment.”
The nonprofit activist group Poison-Free Malibu obtained a summary from the pest control company and gave it to Steven Frantz, PhD, pathobiologist and pesticide expert, for his evaluation.
“I see no need for fumigation and would recommend against it,” Frantz responded. “The fumigant they proposed can leave a residue on interior surfaces for 40 days. Why would anyone want to expose the kids to that?”
Frantz recommended nontoxic solutions to the termite problem. “Replace and repaint damaged wood with borate treated lumber. Spot-treat other areas as necessary with borates (liquid or powder), which provide a wide range of protection from all species of termites, wood-boring insects and fungi.”
Poison Free Malibu emailed SMMUSD school officials on March 30 asking them to postpone the spraying “until an eco-friendly company can re-evaluate the situation.” A variety of non-toxic alternatives were described in the email communication. They then contacted all of Malibu’s city council members on April 3.
According to the Journal of Pesticide Reform fact sheet on sulfuryl fluoride, the chemical is “an extremely hazardous gas... Typical symptoms of exposure include nose, eye, and throat irritation; weakness, nausea, difficult or painful breathing, seizures and kidney injury ... Sulfuryl fluoride is also toxic to the nervous system...and has adversely affected reproduction in laboratory animals.”