A crusader for California’s kids
For nearly 20 years, Robina Suwol has been on a mission to protect California’s kids from dangerous pesticides, toxins and chemicals. And the Sherman Oaks resident shows no signs of slowing down.
It all goes back to an otherwise typical morning 17 years ago. The former actress, who jokes she is “over AARP age,” was dropping off her two sons at their Sherman Oaks elementary school. Her older one went off to his classroom. But Suwol had a specific routine with her younger son. They would say goodbye. Then she would watch as he headed off. When he got a certain distance away, he would turn and the two would blow each other kisses. On this day, however, when her son blew a kiss, there appeared to be something in the air around him. He said there was a terrible taste. Then Suwol noticed a man nearby in a white hazardous-materials suit.
Suwol might have forgotten about the incident, except that her son had asthma. It had been in check. But soon he had what Suwol described as a “very serious” attack.
Suwol’s son worried that another incident like the one at school might occur. Suwol assured him it wouldn’t. But could she really be sure? She started doing research — never, she notes, with any litigious intent. Her motive simply was to find out what her children’s Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school was using that day and see if there might be alternatives.
What she discovered floored her. The district, she said, was using nearly 160 products, many with adverse health effects. This didn’t sit right with Suwol, so she met with school administrators and LAUSD board members.
One year after the incident at her boys’ school and with input from Suwol, LAUSD instituted the Integrated Pest Management Policy, which states, among other things, that the district “will give non-chemical methods first consideration when selecting appropriate pest control techniques.” It also requires that any products used be approved by a Pest Management Team — a group of 15 individuals including teachers, parents, a physician, an environmentalist and school district staff — which meets monthly.
The policy embraces a precautionary principle, which says that even if a substance has not been scientifically proven harmful, if there is any concern that it might be, the district won’t use it. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Suwol said.
The policy underscores the importance of personnel training; anyone handling pesticides receives instruction. Even workers such as painters and roofers are educated about what they can do to keep pests at bay. And it mandates that parents receive a copy of the policy and a list of approved products (now closer to 30) at the beginning of each school year.
According to Suwol, the policy put the district at the forefront of pest management, making it a model for other districts across the country. It also altered Suwol’s career path. In 2000, she launched California Safe Schools (calisafe.org), a one-woman enterprise with an office in downtown Los Angeles. The mission: “Protecting our children’s health and the environment.” Before this, Suwol, who talks about the importance of tikkun olam, had long been involved in health and environmental issues, but more as a hobbyist: participating in beach cleanups, for example. This represented a new chapter, a new level of commitment.
A few years later, Suwol worked with then-Assemblymember Cindy Montañez to pass AB 405, prohibiting the use of experimental pesticides on school grounds, which then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in October 2005.
But Suwol’s work is not limited to pesticide use. Over the years, she has received calls from parents, teachers and community members about lead paint, asbestos, groundwater contamination and vapor intrusions at California schools. People call her from private schools and schools outside of LAUSD about the use of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes in classrooms and Roundup weed killer on school grounds. Suwol is not a scientist, but she works closely with several experts.
When she gets a call, Suwol’s first task is to listen. She asks callers if they have spoken to anyone at the school, and if not, encourages them to do so. If people need more information about a product or issue, she will provide it. She has become an ace at public records requests and has developed close working relationships with senior staff at several regulatory agencies. But her objective is to empower others “to be their own leader,” she said. In some cases, she will meet with administrators, share her concern and offer alternatives. But she is aware that an outsider’s voice is often less compelling. And when people call her with obvious litigious intent, she makes it clear that that is not the purpose of California Safe Schools.
Suwol, who grew up in a reform Jewish home in Portland, Ore., and worships at Chabad of Sherman Oaks, does not charge for her services. California Safe Schools is supported through various foundations and grants.
One issue Suwol is particularly concerned about currently is the use of crumb rubber on some artificial turf fields. This is granulated rubber made from recycled tires. Although Suwol concedes there have been no significant studies done in this area, much has been written about the chemicals in crumb rubber and possible links to cancer.
One might imagine that not every school administrator and bureaucrat is thrilled to see Suwol’s name in their inbox or on their callback list. And surely there are some in that camp.
“One person was discouraging me from sitting down with her,” recalled Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health. That was nearly 16 years ago. Bellomo decided to meet with Suwol anyway. At the time, he was director of environmental health and safety for LAUSD.
“I sat down with her and made the observation [that] she was focused like laser light on the cause. She would be willing to do anything to not lose the person she was talking to. She was extremely tactful and respectful. I have seen her sit at a meeting and instead of reacting violently, she was very thoughtful. She would say, ‘I hear what you are saying. But can you explain why you believe this won’t be helpful?’”
Bellomo continues to work with Suwol in his current position. “I have never seen her come to the school district or county health department with an initiative that wouldn’t directly benefit the public interest. She is unrelenting,” he added.
Sometimes Suwol’s enthusiasm can seem over the top. “Someone said to me, ‘What are you? A god—- one-woman band?’ ” Suwol recalled. But that passion comes from a good place.
“If there is a success to our program,” she said, it’s that “we’ve never misled anyone. We have been very honorable. I don’t try to invent something or create a situation. If you work from your heart in that way, really good things happen.”