Laurie Thompson and her husband were leaving a Boston store while visiting family the night before Christmas Eve, 2014, when they spotted a solicitor for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Next to the solicitor stood a sign with a poem written by a pediatric cancer patient. Unable to fathom being a parent of a child with cancer, the Thompsons eagerly made a donation. As they walked back to the car, they looked at each other, grateful for their two healthy children.
But early the next morning, Thompson’s 2-year-old daughter Caelin woke up vomiting. Although Caelin had been behaving fussier than usual prior to getting sick, Thompson found it strange that she was unable to keep anything down. After trying to engage with her child, Thompson grew increasingly worried when Caelin’s eyes glazed over. She reached into the crib to pick up and comfort Caelin—something she normally loved. This time, however, the girl reached back down for the crib. “That’s when I realized she needed to go to the emergency room immediately,” recalls Thompson. “A sick baby who doesn’t want her mom is a really, really sick baby.”
After spending hours in the emergency room on Christmas Eve, an MRI revealed that Caelin had a mass in the back of her brain. “The doctors came out and told us they had an ambulance waiting to rush us to Boston Children’s Hospital, where Caelin would undergo a nine-hour surgery to remove the tumor,” Thompson recalls. She thought back to the moment she and her husband read the poem outside of the store, less than 24 hours earlier. “We didn’t even realize we were already those parents.”
But Thompson, a resident of the Irvine neighborhood of Quail Hill, wasn’t alone. As she soon learned, 16 other children in Irvine between 1 and 15 years old had also been diagnosed with cancer—many of them, like Caelin, with brain cancer. Given the seeming cluster of cases, Thompson began to suspect that environmental contamination might have something to do with the illnesses. Specifically, Thompson suspected there could be a connection to the fact that the local schoolyards, parks and fields her family frequented were often doused in toxic pesticides, such as Monsanto’s glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, also known as 2,4 D, which constitutes 50 percent of Agent Orange’s chemical makeup. (Yes, the same Agent Orange that was used by the American military in Vietnam to eliminate forest cover in areas used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops, a policy that led to widespread cases of birth defects in Vietnam, as well as illnesses among many Vietnam War veterans.)
“I started becoming hyper-aware of all the signs at schools and at parks that said, ‘Warning! Roundup Treated Area’ and realized that these pesticides are everywhere our kids are,” Thompson says.
She wasn’t the only one who noticed the signage. In 2012, the pesticides also came to the attention of her neighbor, Ayn Craciun, after she experienced a miscarriage 11 weeks into her pregnancy. “I was really upset about it and searched for answers—like any mother in that situation would,” Craciun says. “I started talking about it to another neighbor friend of mine who majored in genetics at UCLA, and we got on the topic of pesticides and how we sometimes would see guys in HAZMAT suits spraying the parks by our houses. She mentioned that pesticide exposure may have had something to do with my miscarriage.”
Digging into research on the chemicals, Craciun found that glyphosate has been linked to fetal death. She became determined to convince the Quail Hill home owners’ association to stop using toxic pesticides. “I’ve become known around the community as the pesticide lady,” Craciun says, laughing. “I’d post pictures on Nextdoor.com [the nationwide social-media platform for neighborhoods] of guys spraying, or of signs at parks, or schools that’d say pesticides had been sprayed. I’d also post studies and spread information I’d learned about their dangers. It’s important for people to know how toxic they are. It got the HOA’s attention, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, Irvine resident Kathleen Hallal was also trying to stop the incessant spraying. A member of her local parent-teacher school association, Hallal spent years pleading with the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) to eliminate the use of pesticides at schools. Although her efforts were ignored, they gained her a reputation around the city. So when Thompson voiced her concern about the use of pesticides on the field used by her son’s soccer team, a friend suggested she reach out to Hallal.
Kim Konte, a mother of three athletic boys in Irvine, also tuned into the pesticide situation after deciding to coach Canyon View Elementary’s 100 Mile Club (a program encouraging children to run 100 miles in a school year). Shortly after signing up, she discovered that Roundup was being used to mark the track. “Roundup is banned in other countries because of its toxicity,” recalls Konte, whose sons played Pony League Baseball. “There was no way I was going to encourage children to run on something that’s horrible for them.”
But she soon realized that Roundup and 2,4 D weren’t just being sprayed at schools: The pesticides were used on every city park and sports complex. (The Irvine Co. failed to respond to several email and phone messages for this article.) After talking to a friend about what could be done, Konte met Hallal, Thompson and Craciun, and they began devising a strategy to stop the use of pesticides in Irvine.
As the quartet of women discovered, landscape-maintenance is a male-dominated industry. And the majority of city and school officials who end up making the final decisions are male. The moms knew they needed to add a male member to their group. With that in mind, Hallal approached Bob Johnson, a Turtle Ridge resident, after a PTA meeting and asked if he might be interested in stopping the use of pesticides. Johnson admits that he didn’t know much about pesticides at that point. But Hallal’s outreach caught his interest because of a professor he knew at the University of Arizona.
"My professor had just bought a house and decided to get it fumigated for termites,” says Johnson. "[He] went up into the attic with the pesticide applier and was in there while chlordane was sprayed all over. He didn’t have a mask on or anything, and two years later, he was dead. He developed cancer of the pleural lining, which is linked to chlordane exposure.”
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In early spring 2015, Konte, Hallal, Craciun and Thompson founded Non Toxic Irvine with the specific intent of making the city the first pesticide-free community in Orange County. But the group isn’t just a bunch of worried residents; the organization also boasts a team of scientific advisers that includes two UC Irvine professors, Dr. Bruce Blumberg (developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences) and Dr. Dean Baker (epidemiologist and director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health).
“We know that 2,4 D is probably carcinogenic, or capable of causing cancer in living tissue,” says Dr. Blumberg. “We have around 15 cases of pediatric cancer that we know of in Irvine, and the majority of them have brain cancer. According to statistics, there should be one per about 300,000 kids who develop this kind of cancer. There are roughly 50,000 kids in Irvine, and we have 15 who have cancer. . . . You really have to wonder what’s going on there.”
Blumberg and Baker aren’t the only doctors who support Non Toxic Irvine. Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, has also come forward to back the group’s efforts. “We’ve been studying the impact of toxins on children for the past 30 years and have reached the inescapable conclusion that little things matter,” Lanphear states in a short online video he produced titled Little Things Matter. “Toxins can have a life-long impact on children. We’ve also discovered that even extremely low levels of toxins can impact brain development.”
The video, Dr. Lanphear explains, was created to educate the public by shedding light on exactly the message Non Toxic Irvine is promoting: There’s no such thing as a “safe” level for toxic chemicals. Repeated exposure to such chemicals over time, especially to ones as toxic as pesticides, are bound to have damaging, if not fatal, effects. “I think on some level, most people know that pesticides aren’t good,” he says. “They’re not just designed to be toxic; they’re designed to kill—they’re designed to kill living things. When you think about it that way—do you still want to be around pesticides? Probably not.”
Although 16 cases of the same types of pediatric cancers occurring within a 10-mile radius seems suspicious, Non Toxic Irvine’s scientific advisers admit it’s virtually impossible to prove that it’s a cluster caused by pesticides. “The population size is too small on an epidemiological level to truly determine if these cancers are caused by pesticides,” says Baker. “This is known as the ‘Texas Sharpshooter Problem,’ which studies how cases of disease cluster in a population. It occurs a lot in public health.”
The Texas Sharpshooter Problem, according to Baker, refers to the phenomenon of focusing on the similarities of diseases while ignoring the differences, giving meaning to randomness. “People don’t live in defined areas permanently, and you can’t define where the margin is. You don’t know where the cancer or disease began, and you can’t prove that it’s not just chance.”
Just because it can’t be proven epidemiologically doesn’t mean that pesticides aren’t the culprit, however, which is why Baker, Blumberg and Lanphear continue to support Non Toxic Irvine. “Although you can’t prove that pesticides are the problem, I think and believe that they are,” says Blumberg. “You obviously can’t test on humans, but many of these pesticides cause cancer in animals. Humans and animals aren’t much different. On a physiological and anatomical level, we’re remarkably similar. We have all of the same organs and organ systems, which perform the same functions in nearly an identical way.”
Just days before Non Toxic Irvine was scheduled to hold a May 5, 2015, meeting with the school district about banishing Roundup and 2,4 D from their landscaping program, the World Health Organization released a report stating that glysophate, Roundup’s active ingredient, was "probably carcinogenic,” a timely warning of the pesticide’s dangerous makeup. "When I read the World Health Organization’s report, I took it as glyphosate causes cancer,” recalls Joe Hoffman, IUSD’s director of maintenance and operations. "There was no way I was even going to play around with the fact they used the word ‘probably.’ I was in full agreement with Non Toxic Irvine.”
The successful May 5 meeting with IUSD sealed the group’s first victory. But just because the IUSD wasn’t using Roundup or 2,4 D anymore didn’t mean they weren’t using other toxic pesticides. Furthermore, the city was still using Roundup and 2,4 D in public areas and near homes. All of this came to a head at an Irvine City Council meeting on Feb. 23, when Non Toxic Irvine demanded that the use of all toxic pesticides be eliminated citywide.
Nearly 100 people showed up in support of Non Toxic Irvine—with 30 of them speaking during the public-comments portion of the meeting. One of the most memorable was 8-year-old brain cancer survivor Charlie Hilgeman, who bravely spoke to Mayor Steven Choi and the City Council members about his battle. "For those of you who’ve had cancer, I know how it feels,” said Charlie. "When I had cancer, it was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. I had to skip school, take a shot once a day—and they hurt so much. This is why we should stop using pesticides.”
Charlie was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, the same type of cancer Caelin had. Charlie’s mother, Laura Hilgeman, sat among the crowd and watched her son. "I asked if he wanted me to help him prepare what to say before the meeting, but he told me he had it covered,” Hilgeman says with a laugh.
"We’re just so lucky that he’s still here. We are very, very good about enjoying each and every day because at any moment, things could change,” she adds with a quiver in her voice.
Laurie Mejia also spoke at the meeting. She brought photographs of her 4-year-old son Donovan, who lost his battle to cancer in 2014. "Before all of this, I had never really thought too much about chemical exposure and pesticides,” Mejia recalls. "But I feel like I have to be a voice and bring awareness because no parent should ever have to feel what my family and I have felt. There isn’t a single day that goes by that I don’t miss my Donovan.”
The City Council voted 5-0 to eliminate the use of toxic pesticides, making Irvine not only the first city in Orange County to eliminate these chemicals from the landscaping plan, but also the first city in all of Southern California to adopt an organic, integrated pest-management program, which eliminates the use of synthetic pesticides, such as Roundup and 2,4 D, under all circumstances and incorporates manual removal, weed whacking and, if necessary, the use of organic pesticides as a means for weed abatement.
The members of Non Toxic Irvine see City Councilwoman Christina Shea as the main reason the ordinance was passed. Shea is a cancer survivor and a firm believer that chronic exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment can lead to serious health problems.
"After my cancer scare in my early 20s, I started to read up and educate myself on organics and pesticides,” Shea says. "People always argue whether eating organic actually makes a difference and whether pesticides really cause cancer, but I think enough has been proven. Most of the experts who work in the field of chemicals say, yes, pesticides can definitely lead to cancers, and they’re extremely dangerous for our bodies.”
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When Non Toxic Irvine initially addressed the City Council to put the removal of pesticides on the agenda, Shea was enthusiastic to support its mission. "I am extremely excited about this group and what they’re doing,” Shea says. "It was my pleasure to support them, and I back them 100 percent.”
According to Konte and Craciun, Non Toxic Irvine received nearly 100 messages within days of the meeting. People from San Clemente to Garden Grove to Smithfield, Road Island, to the United Kingdom reached out to Non Toxic Irvine to discuss how they could accomplish the same in their communities. A total of 26 Non Toxic teams have assembled as a result of the Irvine organization’s success. According to Craciun, the group has responded to the overwhelming requests for help by creating a playbook that lays out the necessary steps in order to create a non-toxic community.
But Non Toxic Irvine didn’t stop after its win with the city. The group’s most recent accomplishment is equally as monumental. Last month, the IUSD decided to adopt fully organic landscaping practices. Prior to this, the school distict had only agreed to stop using Roundup and 2,4 D, but it was still using other highly toxic pesticides. "I’m the type who follows regulations, so I always promoted what the EPA has approved,” says Hoffman. "But what Non Toxic Irvine opened my eyes to is the fact that just because the EPA says it’s safe, [that]sn’t mean it is.”
The transition to organic landscaping methods has some OC school districts questioning IUSD’s decision, however. Hoffman says he has received countless phone calls from other maintenance directors. “Some are extremely supportive of what we’re doing, and others have called to ask what the heck I’m doing. I’ve had people tell me that I don’t have to go this alternative route and that pesticides aren’t as bad as they say,” he says. “And these people have emphasized that because I’m meeting the law, it’s fine. Although IUSD was meeting the law, it was something that I just didn’t agree with anymore— and I know I made the right decision.”
After IUSD decided to make the switch, Non Toxic Irvine set up an organic-landscaping training with Beyond Pesticides—a renowned nonprofit organization whose mission is to help transition away from using conventional landscaping methods by adopting organic, more eco-friendly landscaping practices. The sessions—hosted by Jay Feldman, the executive director of Beyond Pesticides, and horticulturist and turf-grass expert Chip Osborne—highlighted the financial, ecological and health benefits that come with eliminating toxic pesticides from landscaping routines.
To Non Toxic Irvine’s surprise, five representatives from different cities; five different school districts, including the Huntington Beach School District, Newport-Mesa Unified School District and the Ocean View School District; and nine landscaping companies came to the lecture. “The pesticides that are being used on grass, turf fields and landscapes not just in Orange County, but around the entire country are extremely toxic—especially for children,” says Feldman. “Glyphosate has been proven to be a probable carcinogen, and it only makes common sense to transition to practices that don’t rely on [toxic] chemicals. We can meet the[toxic]ations of the community through organic measures.”
Adopting these new practices hasn’t been entirely well-received by the community, Konte explains. It’s often thought that pesticides are the only way to keep the weeds from growing. According to the Beyond Pesticides lecture, if the soil is healthy, weeds won’t grow. Using toxic pesticides causes the growth of weeds in grass because the chemicals deteriorate the soil’s natural defense system, which then requires more pesticides to get rid of the weeds. “People don’t know the cyclical model of pesticides,” says Konte. “We’re fed to think that chemicals are the only way when it comes to lawns and landscaping. Like Chip and Jay said in the training, you can achieve the same with organic landscaping in terms of appearance, and you use 30 percent less water, too. In this drought, we need to save as much water as we can.”
The success of Non Toxic Irvine hasn’t been taken lightly. Last May, the queen of environmentalism, Jane Goodall, released a statement tipping her hat to its efforts. “Pesticides are made to kill living things, and the idea that they only kill the things they’re intended to is just wishful thinking,” Goodall wrote. “Time and science are revealing just how harmful these toxins can be to humans, animals and the entire ecosystem. It’s encouraging to know that there are people working to stop the use of pesticides in their communities. . . . Non Toxic Irvine is doing good work to make this change by engaging in a dialogue with its city’s leaders. I hope people all over the world will be moved to take similar action.”
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In 2014, when the doctor informed Thompson about the mass in Caelin’s brain, Thompson recalls looking at her ill daughter and watching her shake as tears filled her eyes. Thompson breathes deeply as she recounts her daughter’s battle with medulloblastoma. Caelin went into remission after a year of treatment and has been cancer-free for three years.
Now a sassy 5-year-old about to enter the first grade, Caelin gives hope to children who have cancer and their parents. But, according to Thompson, the doctor appointments and MRIs are going to be a part of Caelin’s life forever.
“This is our new normal,” she says. “But that’s okay. We’re just lucky to have her here.”