Fawn Pattison's introduction to toxic chemicals began 20 years ago at Emmell's Septic Landfill, a Superfund site a half-mile away from her home in Galloway Township, N.J.
"We walked by it all the time and didn't know what it was," she says.
Likewise, people often stroll through clouds of pesticides hovering over lawns, wafting through homes and schools or drifting from nearby fields, unaware of the health risks.
For 20 years, the Pesticide Education Project, also known as Pest Ed, not only has fought rampant pesticide use, but also advocated for people particularly vulnerable to the toxins: schoolchildren, who are at risk because of the potential chemical burden on their small bodies, and migrant workers, who often don't know about--or have access to--safety precautions to reduce their exposure.
From Pest Ed's office in an historic house in downtown Raleigh, its young, energetic staff--communications associate Alejandra Gomez, program coordinator Billie Karel, executive director Pattison (pictured, right) and intern Katie Magee--launch their grassroots campaigns. The School Children's Health Act, which became law Oct. 1, is an example of how effective their strategic--and patient--grassroots activism has proven to be.
"I come to it less as an environmentalist and more as a feminist and advocate for reproductive rights," Pattison says, adding that toxins affect the reproductive organs more ferociously than other parts of the body. "I'm interested in gender and socio-economic status, corporate power and social justice."
Pattison began her activist career at the W. Alton Jones Foundation, then the largest funder of environmental projects in the United States. She worked on the foundation's World Security and met Allen Spalt, Pest Ed's former president and director. "I learned a lot about toxics," she says. "And I also learned a lot about how effective grassroots activism was."
Pest Ed's accomplishments are all the more notable considering it is at odds with the powerful and politically connected pesticide industry. Consumers, including farmers, spent $11 billion on pesticides in 2001, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That same year, Dow Chemical's political action committee contributed $280,000 to political campaigns and congressional committees. And last month, a former Dow Chemical executive was hired as an EPA regional administrator for four western states.
Nonetheless, in 2005, Pest Ed began crafting its portion of the School Children's Health Act, which later incorporated legislation backed by other nonprofit groups such as Action for Children N.C. and the Conservation Council of N.C. The act requires public schools to implement Integrative Pest Management by 2011. IPM focuses on such practices as cleaning kitchens and storage areas, sealing cracks in walls and windowpanes and other non-chemical practices to deter pests such as insects and mice. The law also requires parental notification when pesticides are applied in schools; chemicals would be used only as a last resort. Other provisions help protect children from mercury, diesel fumes, arsenic-treated wooden playground equipment and mold and mildew.
Pest Ed began its schools campaign by conducting a survey of pesticide use in all North Carolina schools. About half the schools responded, and the group found many districts, including Wake County, already used IPM.
Those districts served as models for other schools; parent groups also became involved. By the time Pest Ed went to the legislature in 2005, the measure had built momentum.
"We thought critical mass was needed," says Pattison. "These were easy solutions. They cost no money and reduced children's exposure. It was not a mandate from on high in Raleigh and even conservative legislators were for it."
State Rep. Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat who was among the bill's 28 co-sponsors, calls Pest Ed "invaluable" in its work on the bill, and lauded the group's expertise. "The bill doesn't say that pesticides can't be used, but that you should use them intelligently, not the 'spray and pray' approach."
Ned Dillon, compliance manager for the N.C. Structural Pest Control Board, is an unlikely ally. He supports IPM and Pest Ed's initiative because "it's a very good idea. I think you're always going to have to have pesticides, but it's important to learn when you need them and when you don't. Any time you can use IPM in lieu of pesticides alone, that will be beneficial."
Pest Ed did confront opposition to the bill. The bill temporarily stalled in the Senate in 2005 after treated-wood industry lobbyists objected to requirements that schools seal or replace wooden playground equipment that had been treated with arsenic, a cancer-causing chemical.
Yet, not every campaign proceeds so smoothly. Pest Ed's efforts to protect migrant farmworkers from pesticides collide with deeply ingrained issues of economics, culture and race.
"They're not very visible," says Karel. "They live in housing provided by their employers, don't have transportation to go into town. They're not out and about."
"Out of sight, out of mind," adds Pattison. "Everything we eat all day passes through their hands, yet they have no standing. Many people don't care about migrant workers. The system hides the human consequences of the agricultural system and consumers need to know."
Karel's global travels from New York to China to California have shown her that environmental change can lead to social change. In the case of migrant workers, educating them about their rights is the first step in empowering them as individuals. They often don't know that they are entitled to a washing station and breathing masks to protect themselves from pesticides. And as non-unionized workers, they are also afraid to demand their rights for fear of job loss or deportation. Without access to health care, routine pesticide-related illnesses go unchecked. Moreover, some migrant workers are from impoverished villages in southern Mexico and speak neither Spanish nor English, only their indigenous languages.
"The cultural barriers are incredible. Enforcement is weak," says Pattison, who began volunteering with Pest Ed in 1999 as a UNC graduate student in linguistics. "It's not going to be solved with one policy and it has to be in cooperation with other agencies."
Pest Ed is trying to reduce migrant children's pesticide exposure by eliminating or reducing these chemicals and arsenic-treated wood from child-care centers, which are regulated differently than schools.
Small victories, long-term struggles, shifting political climates: Pest Ed's strategy is to pick its battles and incrementally change public policy, which can frustrate activists looking for immediate results.
"We fought off the proposal for aerial pesticide applications, but some community groups wanted a ban; that's not going to happen," says Pattison. "But we can minimize the applications and work to improve enforcement systems, and then when things shift we can jump."
Pest Ed's overarching goal is to teach citizens, whether they're fighting a landfill, a power plant or pesticides in the parks, to organize and take charge of their communities.
"Some believe environmental issues are big and scary," says Karel. "That's not how I make changes. I say, 'These changes are easy. It'll be small, but great.' It's not a huge revolution, but it adds up to big stuff."