In 1998, a school gardener inadvertently sprayed Robina Suwol's 6-year-old son and other children with pesticides as they walked into their Sherman Oaks, Calif., elementary school. Her son's resulting asthma attack prompted Suwol to investigate pesticide use in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She discovered LAUSD used 160 pesticides, many linked to learning disabilities, cancer, asthma, and other illnesses in children and adults.
Rather than focus on one school, Suwold took on the whole district— no small task, given that LAUSD, with 1,000 school sites, is the country's second largest. "I didn't try to be litigious or create an enormous PR campaign," she says. "My intent is always to work collaboratively. When this approach is successful, great things can happen."
Over the next year, Suwol's program, California Safe Schools, a coalition of parents, teachers, medical experts, and scientists, helped LAUSD adopt the most stringent pesticide policy in the nation, banning all products lacking safety records. Two years later, the California Legislature passed the Healthy Schools Act of 2000, which mandates parents' right to know about the pesticides schools use. Four years after that, the state passed AB 405 (Montañez), banning school districts from using experimental pesticides.
"These laws have protected 6 million children and hundreds of thousands of school employees," says Suwol. "Children have no vote, no lobbyists. They depend on adults to protect them. We're committed to doing that."