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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 5, 2007

Classes canceled as fumes probed

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser North Shore Writer

KAHUKU A lingering odor prompted officials to cancel classes at Kahuku High & Intermediate School yesterday as a state investigator tried to figure out what caused the noxious smell that sent students and staff to the hospital on Thursday.

Initial reports point to a turf farm near campus, but farms surround the school in this agricultural community and the state Department of Agriculture Pesticide Branch was there yesterday sniffing out clues.

At about 1:20 Thursday afternoon a noxious odor swept over the campus, affecting mostly seventh- and eighth-graders at the upper part of the campus. Four students and a teacher suffering from throat irritation and vomiting were taken to Kahuku Hospital and released after a couple of hours, according to a Department of Education press release.

Andrew Gon, manager for Ameri-Turf grass farm near the school, said the state had called him about the incident, which occurred about the same time he was testing equipment and getting ready to spray pesticide later in the day. Gon said he was careful during the test. The test was done on one bed of grass, he said, adding that he has been operating the 8-acre farm the same way for a year and a half and hasn't had any complaints until now.

Gon said yesterday he was surprised that the odor sickened people and that it was still around. He said he welcomes the investigation and if it uncovers a problem at his farm, he'll fix it.

"I have no problem with that," he said. "I have nothing to hide."

Robert Boesch, pesticide branch program manager, was out in the field yesterday with an investigator testing areas for overspray.

FINES FOR OVERSPRAYING

Boesch said there are penalties for overspraying. First-time violators get a warning, and farmers can get up to a $1,000 fine for subsequent violations, he said.

"We're looking for potential drift from the site of application to the school," Boesch said, adding that Gon had sprayed the pesticide Orthene on his crop.

Principal Lisa DeLong said the school evacuated the areas affected by the smell on Thursday and immediately asked the farmer to stop spraying.

Information she obtained from the product fact sheet and toxicologists she spoke with said the chemical breaks down in 12 to 24 hours, and since the odor was still apparent in the upper campus, the decision was made to close the school yesterday, DeLong said.

She said she will check the school over the weekend to be sure the smell has dissipated, and classrooms will be scrubbed with bleach as a precaution. The chemical does break down but it leaves a residue, she explained.

"If there's any residue, I want to be sure that the classes are clean and safe," DeLong said.

Monday is teacher development day, so there are no classes for students. They are expected back on Tuesday.

DeLong said the parents of the sickened children said they were doing better and the symptoms were gone.

MEETING OFF CAMPUS

Yesterday teachers and students were shooed off campus until the air could clear, but some school activities took place off campus, including a study group, a seventh-grade banquet and sports activities.

Kori Shlachter, who teaches advanced-placement government and politics, said one of her students called her at 6 a.m. to warn her that school was canceled and not to drive from Makakilo. But Shlachter said some of her students wanted to meet so they could review for an upcoming exam, and they met at the Brigham Young University-Hawai'i library in La'ie.

Shlachter said none of her students was affected by the odor but noted that her classes are well below the area that suffered the most. She said the odor covered the whole campus.

"The smell was really bad and it went throughout the school," she said.

Not everyone was banned from school yesterday. The cafeteria staff had to remain because they prepare meals for Sunset Beach and Kahuku elementary schools, said Pacita Cabab, cafeteria manager. Cabab said she couldn't smell anything yesterday and felt that her staff was safe.

"Just the upper campus side is affected," she said. "We can't smell it at all."

Joe Whitford, school athletic director, said athletes who were participating in games were expected to play since all of the sports were taking place off campus. A bus would pick them up off campus and take them to their various sites, Whitford said. But other activities on campus were canceled, including a dance and parent meeting, he said.

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com.