Another complaint has been filed against international GMO company Syngenta Seeds Inc., after several teachers at Waimea Canyon Elementary School claimed they were sick from airborne herbicides that reached their classrooms.
In a statement filed with the Department of Agriculture, several teachers allege that Syngenta sprayed Touchdown HiTECH on Jan. 23 on the field near the school while faculty was present.
“This is a complicated issue that deals with complicated chemicals that are beyond our expertise at times,” Tom Perry, director of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association on Kaua‘i, said.
“That’s why we need to see if it’s being applied following (EPA) guidelines.”
This is the second complaint involving the school and company within the past three months, as a hazardous-materials team and the state DOA were called to the school Nov. 13 after students reported symptoms of congestion, dizziness and nausea.
At least 10 students went home ill that day.
The reported symptoms in November coincided with an herbicide application on a field roughly one-quarter mile away, Bob Boesch, pesticide program manager for the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, said.
Officials ruled out herbicides and determined that “stink weed” was the cause of the adverse reactions. The DOA’s report on the incident determined Syngenta applied its herbicides “legally.”
However, in the most recent complaint, a teacher’s videotape captures a Jan. 23 image of rising mist from equipment applying Touchdown HiTECH on the field adjacent to the school.
The video, which shows airborne spray, has now become part of the DOA’s second investigation involving the two entities.
Perry said teachers called Syngenta and complained that the herbicide was making them feel ill, noting that the operator of the sprayer did not stop until the entire application was finished, roughly 30 minutes later.
Several concerned teachers said it has become increasingly difficult to monitor the problem.
On the condition of anonymity, one teacher said since the November incident, “enough students reported to the health room with ‘flu-like’ symptoms to warrant teacher notification of illness ‘spikes,’” noting a concern that media attention might preclude the health aide, a Department of Health Employee, from disclosure of such “spikes.”
The teacher also said the incidents corresponded with Kona, or west winds, and occurred after spraying.
While the EPA allows use of the herbicide, it is a violation of federal law to apply it inconsistently with its instructions.
Labeling on Touchdown HiTECH specifically states that the product should not be applied in “a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift.”
Perry said the claim that Syngenta is in compliance with its spraying is false.
“We have a picture of that spray becoming airborne,” Perry said. “They are not complying with EPA standards.”
Because the DOA report could take several weeks or months to create, Perry met on Feb. 8 with school administrators and representatives from the company to try to establish a “spraying protocol.”
“The main point of contention we had at that meeting was they were not willing to stop spraying immediately if teachers or students complained of illness when Syngenta was spraying,” Perry said. “If they really care about the community and the teachers, why wouldn’t they want to take the safest possible route and stop spraying immediately?”
Tom Gahom, of Syngenta in Minneapolis, said the company did receive a call from a teacher that day and did “follow protocol.”
“We stopped spraying, checked the sprayer just to make sure they were functioning properly,” Gahom said. “The settings were at a very low setting, which means a low amount was coming out.”
According to a letter dated Feb. 16 from Syngenta, the company will cease its herbicide application if it receives a complaint and will modify the spray schedule, “if warranted.”
While the DOA conducts its second investigation, Perry said he hopes staff will catalog anything they witness that could be a health risk to themselves or the students, he said.