SAN DIEGO, Calif. (CBS 8) -- A gopher-control pesticide that killed two little girls in Utah is being used on athletic fields all over San Diego County, according to permits filed with the County of San Diego Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.
The chemical, aluminum phosphide, is also known as Fumitoxin and it is deadly because it gives off toxic gas.
"You start out not feeling well, kind of sick, throwing up, and then you start to get short of breath, feeling weak and dizzy. Then your heart starts to have problems," said Dr. Martin Caravati, Medical Director of the Utah Poison Control Center.
In February 2010, Rebecca Kaye Toone, 4, and Rachel Ana Toone, 15 months, died after fumes seeped into their home in Layton, Utah. The deaths led to increased restrictions on the use of Fumitoxin in schoolyards and residential areas.
Karan Zopatti, 51, knows a lot about Fumitoxin. She filed a lawsuit against her San Marcos homeowners' association for allegedly using the pesticide near her home. She also believes pesticides contributed to the death of her one-day-old son, Matthew, in 1991.
"I want safety in my house. I want safety for my community. And, I certainly want safety for children," said Zopatti. "I was completely ignorant until this happened to my family and I don't want to see this happen to anybody else's family."
A restricted materials permit is needed to apply Fumitoxin on athletic fields at schools in San Diego County. The Fumitoxin tablets or pellets are dropped into the gopher tunnels and toxic gas travels throughout the entire underground system, killing the gophers.
"The kids are out there playing, having no idea that these gases can last up to 72 hours," said Zopatti.
Pest companies are required to apply Fumitoxin when school is not in session, and post warning signs on the fields before and after application. The signs currently are posted in the Oceanside Unified School District where Fumitoxin is still used.
The Oceanside district has a pesticide application contract with a company in Chino, California named Animal Pest Management Services.
"We use it (Fumitoxin) in seven counties at numerous school districts and never had one incident in 31 years," said the company's president, Dan Fox. "I've made literally millions of applications. I have 20 guys in the field and they apply it every day, every hour."
Fox said Fumitoxin is safe and the Utah deaths in 2010 were the result of too much pesticide being applied too close to a home.
"That was horrible. It was tragic," said Fox. "But I would not use it if was not safe."
At schools in California, Fumitoxin – under its current restrictions – cannot be applied within 100 feet of a school building. Fox said the toxic gas does a good job of getting rid of gophers in playing fields.
"That's the reason why school districts hire us, so kids are safe; so when they're running a 100-yard dash or playing football or soccer, they don't fall in a hole or break their leg or sprang their ankle," said Fox.
Fox's pest company in Chino, along with another firm in Lakeside named Agricultural Pest Control Services (AGPEST), have permits to apply Fumitoxin at numerous local schools, including campuses in the Oceanside Unified School District, the Sweetwater Union High School District, the Poway Unified School District, and the Chula Vista Elementary School District, just to name a few.
A manager with AGPEST declined to comment for this report.
A spokesperson for the Sweetwater Union district told News 8 that Fumitoxin has not been used since August 2012. A Chula Vista Elementary district spokesperson said Fumitoxin has not been used there for at least 12 months.
The City of San Diego, Parks and Recreation department stopped using Fumitoxin in 2010. Maintenance manager David Long said he used to use it for gopher control in Balboa Park. Now he uses traps.
"(Traps) are safe. They're underground. People aren't going to get into them. You know when you've killed the gopher because you have a body," said Long.
Long said he changed to the non-toxic alternative out of concern for public safety.
"We use traps now and it's fairly effective," said Long. "Even when we used Fumitoxin, we still had gophers. But I don't believe our problem without Fumitoxin is any worse than it was with Fumitoxin."
Dan Fox, the pest company owner, told News 8 that traps are not as effective for killing gophers.
"You have to dig a hole. You have to put the traps in the ground. You get vandalism from it. You get wildlife trying to dig them up," said Fox.
The San Diego Parks and Rec manager admitted setting traps can be a bit of a hassle.
"Using traps is not as cost effective as using Fumitoxin because with Fumitoxin; it's one visit and you've killed the gophers," said Long. "With traps you need to be there and put a few more hours into it."
"But I mean, look at Balboa Park. You won't see too many gophers," added Long.
Which left Karan Zopatti with one last question. "Why are we doing this when you can use something that's less toxic and there's an alternative?" she asked.
If you want to find out which pesticides are being used at your neighborhood school, you can call the school district and ask to be added to the parental notification list.
News 8 questions and answers with Sandy Parks, Assistant Director of the County of San Diego Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures:
Question: Does your department consider the use of Fumitoxin safe at school sites?
Fumitoxin (aluminum phosphide) is applied below the ground in burrows to control rodents. It is a registered restricted material and must only be used by or under the supervision of a DPR-certified applicator. Users of Fumitoxin are required to obtain a permit from the CAC. The permit is time- and site-specific, and includes use practices to mitigate adverse effects. DPR's licensing, registration, permitting and enforcement programs work in conjunction with the local CACs to minimize risks from pesticides when used according to applicable pesticide safety laws, label restrictions, and permit requirements.
Question: Is Fumitoxin the least toxic alternative for use at school sites (as opposed to traps) for gopher control?
Fumitoxin is not the least toxic alternative for gopher control. It is one of many tools available for the control of gophers. The selection of which method is best suited to an individual situation is determined on a case by case basis. When determining if a pesticide is the appropriate tool to use, many factors unique to the situation and the pest to be controlled must be considered before a decision can be made. Examples of the factors that may be considered are the severity of infestation, site to be treated, and timing of the treatment. There are several other non-pesticide options to manage gophers such as habitat modification to reduce gopher food sources; traps, exclusion using fencing or gravel; use of owls, snakes, coyotes and other predators that eat pocket gophers (not all appropriate for school sites);; and flooding to force gophers from their burrows. (See: www.cdpr.ca.gov/schoolipm/health_issues/main.cfm?#usehelper ).
Question: Do the local school districts where Fumitoxin is being used have Integrated Pest Management plans that require the least toxic material be used?
This question is best answered by each individual school district. If the school district is doing integrated pest management (IPM), their pest management decisions will be broad-based, considering alternatives to pesticides, location and extent of the infestation, potential for harming people or non-target animals, effectiveness, economics and the consequences of doing nothing. For example, allowing gopher holes on athletic fields can cause serious injury to children, including broken bones and muscle strains. In some cases, schools do trap or use other non-pesticide methods, but find they can't keep up with a growing gopher population. IPM does not eliminate the use of pesticides. When pesticides are used in IPM, least toxic pesticides are used first, and more toxic options may be used only after other pest management alternatives have been evaluated.
The Healthy Schools Act (HSA) has no provision requiring use of IPM at schools nor does it require schools to have an IPM plan or IPM training. The law requires DPR to provide IPM training to school districts, but attendance by districts is voluntary, as is their use of IPM methods. The Healthy Schools Act put into place "right-to-know" requirements, such as notification, posting and record keeping for pesticides used in California schools. However, the law has no provisions for direct enforcement. Since the requirements for schools are under the Education Code, the school district is ultimately responsible for ensuring compliance with the HSA. DPR provides outreach, resources and training to school districts in IPM. DPR also encourages school districts to adopt an IPM program and use other methods of pest control (including prevention and exclusion of pests) before using pesticides.