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SLO County schools rethink pest mitigation amid ongoing Roundup controversy 

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In 2016 and 2017, nearly 80 schools and child care facilities in SLO County used pesticides to keep gophers, cockroaches, weeds, and other pests off campuses and out of classrooms. According to data collected by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, nearly half of those schools used Roundup, a controversial weed killer that is at the center of thousands of lawsuits that claim exposure to the product can cause cancer.

click to enlarge ROUNDING UP THE FACTS Data collected by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation shows that Roundup, a controversial weed killer, was used at a number of SLO County schools in 2016 and 2017. - GRAPHICS BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • Graphics By Alex Zuniga
  • ROUNDING UP THE FACTS Data collected by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation shows that Roundup, a controversial weed killer, was used at a number of SLO County schools in 2016 and 2017.

Now some school districts in SLO County are rethinking pest management.

San Luis Coastal Unified School District banned the use of pesticides at its school sites entirely at the end of 2018, according to Chris Bonin, director of facilities, operations, and transportation. The move was in direct response to the scrutiny surrounding Roundup and a compound it contains called glyphosate, which some say can lead to serious health issues.

"Plus it's good for the environment," Bonin said of the district's ban on pesticides. "It's a good thing to do."

Within the last few years, tens of thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto, the company that makes Roundup, and several complainants have won their cases. In August 2018, a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay a former school groundskeeper nearly $300 million in damages after he argued that extended exposure to Roundup contributed to his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

That case and others like it were concerning to San Luis Coastal staff and families, Bonin said, and put a spotlight on health and safety concerns surrounding pesticide use in general.

Pests of all kinds present a constant battle at the roughly 15 sites in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, Bonin said, and can cause a plethora of their own health and safety issues. Bugs and rodents can spread disease and destroy facilities, and holes left by gophers and ground squirrels are dangerous to students and staff playing and walking on campuses.

Between 2016 and 2017, Roundup was reportedly used at nearly 73 percent of the San Luis Coastal's school sites, according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation, but since the pesticide ban, Bonin said he's been experimenting with organic sprays and other pest mitigation strategies.

Right now, Bonin said some campuses are looking a bit less manicured than usual.

"It'll take us a little while to find the right product," he said, "but in the meantime we're going to change up our landscapes a bit."

The district added another staffer to its now nine-person maintenance team just to focus on weeding. Bonin said staff are also working on installing "rockscapes" with drought-tolerant plants. While weeds can grow through grass and wood chips, they have a hard time getting through rocks.

Coast Unified School District's board of education also voted to ban the use of Roundup on all district-owned properties in May of this year, after parents complained via social media that they had witnessed maintenance staff spraying Roundup at one school site weeks earlier. Roundup was reportedly used on three of the district's five sites between 2016 and 2017, according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation, before the ban was in place.

Coast Unified Superintendent Scott Smith said in an email to New Times that the district is now in line with Cayucos Elementary School District, where he also serves as superintendent. That district hasn't used Roundup in years, he said.

At Lucia Mar Unified School District, which used Roundup at only two of its 20 sites in 2016 and 2017, Grounds and Custodial Supervisor Jeff Baker said maintenance staff cover open space and problem areas with layers of mulch in an effort to limit pesticide use.

click to enlarge GRAPHICS BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • Graphics By Alex Zuniga

Spreading mulch is one of the pest mitigation strategies outlined by the Department of Pesticide Regulation on its recently updated School and Child Care Integrated Pest Management website, which is aimed at helping California schools and child care facilities limit toxic pesticide use whenever possible.

The Healthy Schools Act of 2000 prohibits some pesticides and encourages schools and child care centers to use the least toxic pest management practices possible by developing integrated pest management plans, which can include maintaining mulch, handpicking weeds, soil solarization, and blocking doorways and cracks that bugs could get through.

Through the Department of Pesticide Regulation site, schools can sign up for pest management training and learn more about chemical pesticides and ways to avoid using them, according to Charlotte Fadipe, assistant director of communications with the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

"We know that weeds are a pest for schools," Fadipe wrote in an email to New Times. "It can cause issues for the athletic teams and sports activities amongst other things. We encourage schools to use methods like mowing, hand weeding, or even using goats instead of chemical pesticides where possible."

Still, a number of schools in SLO County used at least some pesticides on their campuses in 2016 and 2017, from gopher and cockroach baits to a variety of herbicides. Several districts, including Paso Robles Joint Unified School District and Atascadero Unified School District, used Roundup at nearly every school site. Neither of those districts could be reached for comment before press time. Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.

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