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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 24, 2008

Odor that got kids sick debated

By Diana Leone
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

"We hope that this decision assists in restoring community perspective and opportunities to work together on identifying the cause of the odors and resulting illness"

Mark Wall | Syngenta Seeds Hawaii spokesman

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LIHU'E Syngenta Seeds insists that its pesticide spraying on a corn field wasn't what sickened students and teachers at nearby Waimea Canyon Middle School last month, sending at least 10 for emergency-room treatment.

Teacher Wendy Tannery whose second-period physical education class complained of nausea, headache and dizziness on Jan. 25 after smelling a "really strong smell" outside begs to differ.

However, Tannery and fellow teacher Sue Schott, both of whom were ill that day, say they find the company's recent promise not to spray the field with pesticides anymore this year encouraging.

"It's a good start," said Tannery, though she puts more stock in a "working group" proposed to study the issue of agricultural spraying near Hawai'i schools in Senate Bill 3170, Senate Draft 1.

The proposal, which passed the Senate Education and Energy and Environment committees Feb. 15, would have representatives from the agriculture industry, the state departments of Health and Education and other affected parties monitor incidents involving pesticides and schools and bring a proposal to the 2009 legislative session, said sponsor Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua'i.

Hooser said he backed off his bill's original language proposing strict no-pesticide zones around schools after Syngenta promised in writing to cease spraying in the field next to Waimea Canyon Middle School. The bill also faced opposition by the agriculture and pesticide industries and the state Departments of Agriculture and Education, which said the bill was overly broad.

"We hope that this decision assists in restoring community perspective and opportunities to work together on identifying the cause of the odors and resulting illness," Syngenta Seeds Hawaii spokesman Mark Wall said in a statement.

RECURRING PROBLEM

It's an emotionally charged issue for some teachers and parents at Waimea Canyon Middle School, which has had three instances in the past three years of students complaining of sickness shortly after a chemical application on a 10-acre seed corn plot just 300 feet from school athletic fields.

Tannery said she is skeptical of the tentative conclusions of the state Departments of Agriculture and Health and the Kaua'i Fire Department that maybe the pungent smell of "stinkweed" (Cleome gynandra) sent more than 60 kids to the Waimea school health room Jan. 25.

Tannery said she's familiar with stinkweed from encountering it in horse pastures and that's not what she smelled on Jan. 25. She and her students were outside that morning, playing "capture the flag," when all but one of the students began complaining of dizziness. The one child who didn't seem affected lives nearby, she said.

Schott said her daughter, a student at the school, was given an anti-vomiting drug intravenously at the nearby West Kauai Medical Center and that she saw several other students breathing on machines at the hospital to help open their airways.

Schott said she threw up at school, about an hour after she first smelled the odor and 30 minutes after she'd moved into an air-conditioned room. When a substitute teacher replaced her, she also went to the medical center for treatment.

NO SERIOUS ILLNESSES

All of those treated at the West Kauai Medical Center emergency room Jan. 25 were experiencing nausea, said emergency-room physician Wayne Fukino. All "would have recovered on their own," but were made more comfortable by treatments, he said.

"We took care of symptoms. There was nobody seriously ill and nobody required hospitalization," Fukino said.

Fukino said that "not as a doctor, but as an average citizen" he sees the merit of stopping pesticide spraying in a buffer zone by the school as a "common sense, risk-management thing even if there's no health risk and nobody got permanently ill."

On Feb. 15, the Honolulu Fire Department responded to St. Joseph School in Waipahu after fumes from a school employee using a common pesticide, Malathion, made some children feel ill.

Kahuku Intermediate and High schools were closed three days last May after 15 students were sickened by pesticide drifting from a nearby turf farm.

Tannery credited Hooser, The Garden Island newspaper and the teachers' union for keeping the issue alive for Waimea students and staff. "We couldn't have done it ourselves," she said.

Tom Perry, the Kaua'i representative for the Hawai'i State Teachers Association, has called for more protection for students and staff after each of the incidents at Waimea Canyon School. He and teachers staged a protest before school Feb. 1, when they believed Syngenta was going to spray another chemical that day.

Perry also sought a court order restraining Syngenta from spraying and asked the state Department of Health to conduct "baseline" toxicology tests of students and staff at the school in case of a future incident.

NO 'BASELINE TESTS'

Health Department Director Chiyome Fukino told Perry in a Feb. 14 letter that the department is concerned about the Jan. 25 sicknesses at the school. But, she noted, "there are no appropriate 'baseline tests' " that would detect the type of chemical in the "Warrior" pesticide that was used on the field Jan. 24.

A state Department of Agriculture pesticide specialist who investigated the Jan. 25 incident on Jan. 28 found no evidence of improper use of the pesticide "Warrior," whose active ingredient is cyfluthrin, a type of synthetic pyrethrin, said Robert Boesch, the department's pesticides program manager.

The report cited Kaua'i Fire Department and state Health Department workers as having determined that pulled stinkweed in a nearby field was the likely culprit of the smell.

In about a month, the Department of Agriculture will make an additional report to the Department of Health about all chemicals Syngenta used two weeks before the Jan. 25 incident at Waimea Canyon Middle School, Boesch said.

Reach Diana Leone at dleone@honoluluadvertiser.com.