Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Teens' science project causes stir

A high-school science project has created concern among some parents in this small community after its teenage authors concluded chemicals from neighboring cabbage farms are contaminating the air near a new elementary school.

Administrators at South Woods Elementary School say the conclusions reached by Alex Lowe and ReAnna Greene, both 17, are flawed and speculative and causing unnecessary alarm in the community. The girls did receive significant assistance from a group that's opposed to pesticide use.

Still, the local newspaper has written about the pair and their findings and the St. Johns County school district has hired a Jacksonville firm to do more testing to confirm that pesticide and herbicide levels at South Woods remain safe. It hopes to have results soon.

"I am surprised about all the attention," Lowe said.

Neither Alex nor ReAnna plan a career in science and they hadn't started out to cause a stir in this town of 631 residents and its surrounding communities, about 20 miles southwest of St. Augustine. They had planned to do a project on sea grasses, but it fell through.

Their advanced-placement science teacher at Pedro Menendez High School, Karen Ford, suggested they do a project on pesticides after hearing a presentation by Susan Kegley, a researcher at the Pesticide Action Network North America. The organization advocates the use of alternatives to pesticides.

The Environmental Youth Council, a club for St. Johns County high-school and college students, paid the group for the testing equipment. The club also sent Ford and Alex to California to receive training.

The girls and their teacher decided to test the air at South Woods Elementary, which opened in August 2005 and has 598 students and 72 staff members. The school sits in the middle of cabbage fields -- the area grows half of the state's crop. Potatoes for the chip industry are also grown here.

"It seemed like a low-tech way to do important science," Ford said. South Woods "seemed like a likely place to find pesticide drift."

They approached school officials about placing air samplers on campus, but were turned away. So they went to Sarah Barker. She owns a home about a third of a mile from the school, where her daughter is in second grade. She said the cabbage farm sprays chemicals almost daily and she's worried.

"The school is trying to cover something up," Barker said.

To collect their samples, Alex and ReAnna used a drift catcher -- tubing attached to a small pump pulls in air and traps it in a resin. Once a day, the tubes were placed in ice and sent off for analysis paid for by the organization. The girls and Ford say the wind generally blew toward the school, so they think their sample is similar to what would be found at South Woods.

According to the girls, the results showed the pesticides diazinon and trifluralin and the herbicide endosulfin are in the air near the school. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided in 2000 to phase out residential use of diazinon to reduce risk to children and others. Endosulfin can affect hormones that regulate growth and development, the agency says. Trifluralin is a possible carcinogen.

But school officials say testing was done on the site before the school was built and the air was found safe.

"I am upset that the conclusions drawn . . . are causing fears in our students, parents, faculty and community," Principal Brian McElhone said in a letter sent home to families. Yu an Farms, the corporation that owns the cabbage fields, did not return several calls seeking comment.

Mark Mossler, a University of Florida pesticides expert, said he doubts the validity of the testing and said the chemicals are needed to protect the state's valuable agricultural industry.

"The only place there is a problem in the [action network] people's heads," he said. "It is just an anti-pesticide agenda."

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