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food / travel

In Bordeaux, French Wine Business vs. Safe Schools

After students were hospitalized in the Bordeaux winegrowing region, pesticides were blamed. Parents calling for new rules near schools face a "code of silence" protecting the wine sector.

Harvesting grapes is big business in Gironde
Harvesting grapes is big business in Gironde
Audrey Garric

VILLENEUVE — This village counts 402 residents and 250 hectares (618 acres) of vineyards. Arriving an hour's drive north from the city of Bordeaux, a visitor to Villeneuve sees vines virtually everywhere, including right up to the edge of residential neighborhoods, the town hall and a small white primary school tucked inside the green valley.

This is where 23 students, ages 8 to 10, along with their teachers, were taken to the hospital on May 5 after a fungicide was sprayed on nearby vines. Since then, the quaint village has been filled with a mix of anger and worry over the presence of pesticides. It is a sensitive topic indeed, since the wine produced from these vineyards is the core of the local economy. Both the prestige and very identity of the region are on the line.

The government head of the Gironde department issued an executive order June 23 to ban the growing use of pesticides within 50 meters of all schools at the times students exit and enter. In this area, there are an estimated 164 schools within this distance to vineyards and other agricultural fields.

The affair expands beyond this famed Bordeaux wine region, as the French National Assembly is now studying a bill to institute stricter regulations on the use of pesticides near schools, child care centers, hospitals and retirement homes.

In the wake of the Villeneuve student illnesses, the French NGO Association of Future Generations has collected more than 120,000 signatures on their petition calling for an outright ban of pesticides near any residential area or school in France.

“We are finally beginning to realize the danger of these substances on our health,” says Nadine Lauverjat, of Future Generations.

May 5, a Monday, was a very hot day, and two vineyards were treating their vines: the first one, Château Escalette, which is considered organic, used sulfur and copper; the other one, Château Castel La Rose, a conventional vineyard, used Eperon and Pepper, two products that prevent mildew.

Distance and wind speed

“During their lunch break, children began to get sick with serious headaches, itchy eyes, and sore throats. And the teacher was taken to the hospital emergency,” said Pierre Kessas, a health inspector from the Blaye District. The headmaster of the school kept the other children inside, and then called Emergency Medical Assistance Service and the Poison Control Center of Bordeaux.

The pupils were examined at the hospital, before returning to school the next day.

Gironde officials opened an investigation with the help of the Regional Department of Food, Agriculture and Forest, and the Regional Health Agency (ARS). In their report, the officials remained cautious. “We cannot determine a causal link, but the symptoms of the children are consistent with the side effects of the fungicide used,” said Martine Vivier-Darrigol, responsible for health monitoring at the Regional Health Agency.

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(photo - Mescon)

Another factor was the weather. A 2006 law stipulates that it is illegal to spray pesticides if wind speed is above 19 kilometers per hour (11 mph). And though there is no certainty about the wind that day, Daniel Delestre, president of the Association of Environmental Protection of Gironde concluded: “It is a very serious incident, we couldn’t just let it go.”

In the modest office of Castel La Rose, one of the two vineyards being investigated, we meet Catherine Vergès, who also happens to be mayor of Villeneuve. “How could you think that we poisoned our own kids? Over the past 30 years, I’ve never made any mistakes when it comes to pupils at school,” she said. “I personally went to this school, and so did my children.”

Nonetheless, after the incident in May, on the Vergès family’s 23 hectares of Bourg and Bordelaise vineyard, pesticides are not used between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the areas near the school.

“I think the winegrowers got the message,” says one mother, Sandra, of an 8-year-old who got ill on May 5. “I was so angry that day: they used sulfate, and it was windy. It is a lack of common sense.”

This nurse’s assistant, like many other residents in Villeneuve, has family members in the wine business.

Waiting to retire

“Many people here depend on winegrowing to make a living, so there is a code of silence,” says Raymond Jagielka, whose vineyard borders his house. He suffers from respiratory problems and is convinced that pesticides make it worse. “Every time the pesticide is sprayed, I don’t feel well and I have to lock myself inside my home. The regulation of the wind velocity has not been respected.”

Jagielka adds: “I’m waiting for my retirement and I will move away.”

Nearby lives Line Héraud, who’s been a winegrower for 35 years: “Sure, there is a certain smell, and those who’ve just arrived are not used to it. But they are all happy to drink the wine.”

Emmanuelle Reix who lives in Léognan, 60 kilometers from Villeneuve has been aware of the problem for a long time. When she moved here in 2009, the French-language teacher sent her kids to Jean-Jaurès Primary School, another school surrounded by vineyards.

After she saw pesticide spraying while her children were out on the playground, she went directly to some of the winegrowers and to the mayor. “But it was in vain. As for the residents here, there is this kind of omertà, the code of silence,” she says. “Many oscillate between denial of the reality and fatalism.”

But something may finally be changing. On the first Thursday of July, a demonstration was organized in front of Jean-Jaurès Primary School calling on local and national officials to “go even farther.” The demand: extend the no-pesticide line from 50 meters to 200 meters away from all schools.

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