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Pesticides under scrutiny

Responding to encouragement from parents, the Phoenix-Talent School District is making headway on eliminating toxic herbicides and pesticides that have been used for decades on playgrounds and landscaping.

A dozen concerned parents, several of whom work in health professions, flocked to a Phoenix-Talent School Board meeting last week to urge adoption of a written and signed agreement for organic pest control, and cessation of chemical sprays until that plan is in place, said Rhianna Simes, a permaculture professional, member of Talent’s Integrated Pest Management Committee, and mother of two preschoolers.

Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry said the district has made “significant progress” in reducing or eliminating herbicides and pesticides in the past year and is working on policies for the school board to consider.

“It takes a little time, but we’re getting there,” he said.

“I shared, and the board could hear the urgency in our voices,” Simes said. “Spring is coming. That’s when products are most used. We need a policy in place. They’re not responding with a willingness to do that and create a committee to write an organic-first integrated pest management policy. We want this to be collaborative, with district and community. I want my children to go to school where we live and can be safe and work together.”

Simes ran the Land Steward program at Oregon State University Extension Service here and is certified through Oregon Tilth. She and colleagues reviewed district records and noted the weedkillers 2,4-D and glyphosate have been used, so “it just makes sense we would reduce the risk of exposure to children, as these chemicals are designed to kill. We want to help and be community partners. We’ve been open to dialog, and we need it in writing so we can come to some kind of resolution.”

Steps have been taken, says Barry, including trainings with Bee City, OSU Extension and the city of Talent, which has gone pesticide-free, and licensing of crews about use of organics. Elementary school tracks have been paved to eliminate thorny weeds, weed-blocking fabric has been installed in raised beds, and dirt parking lots have been hardened off.

Rachel Hough of Phoenix, the leader of the campaign, says she joined the decade-long community efforts in November, and “every school district, according to state law, must have a pest management plan that prioritizes the pesticide issue. The law says methods of least harm should be prioritized, and glyphosate is not least harm. We can’t understand why there’s such lack of compliance here. If pesticides must be used, it should be as absolute last resort. Ashland has been ‘none at all’ for eight years. We want to assist in the transition to ‘organic first’ pest management.”

Hough said her family lives near a Phoenix-Talent school, but she “wouldn’t even consider” sending her 4-year-old son there.

“What do they use? It’s unclear. They tell us verbally they’re in transition to organic, but there’s a lack of transparency. Let’s start addressing this.”

Talent resident Zhavanya Leib, a mother of three who live across the street from Talent Elementary and has two children enrolled, has pursued the ban for three years.

“There’s a preconception that these chemicals are safe enough to use,” she says. “They are not safe for children or pregnant women. It’s a real struggle to feel safe to bring children to the school yard. It’s hard to swallow. I have an autoimmune disorder, and my son has asthma that gets worse every time they spray. I believe they want to do the right thing, and they’re trying to discover what that is. They really need to educate themselves. We’re finally getting louder. The conversation has to keep happening.”

Eleyah Knight, owner of Southern Oregon Permaculture Academy and Siskiyou Clinic of Natural Medicine, says the school board should “open their hearts and minds and respect the citizenry and let us guide them through the transition. Children are afraid to play on the grass. They’ve known about this most of their lives. It’s really sad. It’s not fair. We’re not frantic hippies. We come from all different walks of life and have done all the research. They are public servants, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t do this.”

Simes said the citizens group will meet with the board informally over coffee this week.

Integrated Pest Management is a system of using the most natural and noninvasive means with the least impactful economic injury.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Zayden Leib, 11, (left) and Zalo Leib, 8, play in their yard across the street from Talent Elementary School. The boys' mother, Zhavanya Leib, is working to get the school to stop using synthetic pesticides over concerns they are effecting her family's health. Photo by Denise Baratta.