As I Live and Breathe: The Non Toxic Movement in Irvine and Beyond

This topic isn’t as polarizing as the choice between Clinton vs. Trump but you’ll find plenty of heated discussions between complete strangers if you search the internets. The most vocal commenters generally fall into one of two categories: 1) those who say things like, “Relax, everything can be toxic… so what? Stop with all the scare tactics.” or on the other end of the spectrum, 2) those who say things like, “The government and the chemical companies are all evil, you can’t trust anyone.” That said, let’s talk about pesticides.

Roundup Weed & Grass KillerWhere would you categorize yourself? I find myself somewhere in the middle. Maybe you do too. I buy organic produce for the “dirty dozen” and I use “green” cleaning products in my home. I’d like to think that I take reasonable measures to reduce my exposure to harmful chemicals wherever I can. I suspect this third category of relatively quiet middle-of-the-roaders, of which I have been a longtime member, is perhaps the largest group of people. So if you’re like me and at least curious about how the City of Irvine decided to stop the use of toxic pesticides, read on.

Pediatric Cancer in Irvine

September was Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Laurie Thompson, an Irvine resident and Non Toxic Irvine board member has a six year old daughter who is a cancer survivor. She says her daughter feels embarrassed that she had cancer and she doesn’t want to feel different from other children.

City maintained Bill Barber Park
City maintained Bill Barber Park

When asked what drove her to push for the ban of toxic pesticides in Irvine, Laurie said, “The effects of childhood cancer are not always visible but they are there. They never go away.  It causes me great pain to know that my sweet, spunky, tiny girl feels ashamed of her cancer journey. Cancer has already taken so much from our family and from so many others. I never expected it to cause my daughter embarrassment. The desire to protect my children and all of the children of our community from the effects of toxic pesticides is a major driving factor for me.

What is a “pesticide” anyway? Some Basic Definitions

basic-pesticide-definitionsPesticides and Children

Pesticides are products that are designed to kill or harm living organisms, whether they are weeds, insects, rodents or small animals, making them inherently toxic.1)

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides is associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems.” Due to children’s unique vulnerability to their toxicity, the AAP recommends reducing children’s exposure to pesticides.2)’s-Exposure-to-Pesticides.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

City Council of Irvine Votes Unanimously to Move to Organic Pesticides at the Urging of Non Toxic Irvine

The Irvine group Non Toxic Irvine (“NTI”) spearheaded a movement to make Irvine as free from toxic pesticides as possible. On February 23rd of this year, NTI, joined by several other Irvine residents and scientific experts, spoke at a City Council meeting to request that the City amend its policy on pesticide use due to health risks associated with exposure to toxic pesticides.  The City Council unanimously voted to amend the City’s Integrated Pest Management (“IPM”) policy.

Irvine’s IPM was amended to use pesticides in the following order: 1) organic pesticides, 2) Water Quality Act Allowed Pesticides, and 3) EPA Level III “caution” labeled pesticides only when deemed necessary to protect public health and economic impact by a licensed pest control adviser. Organic pesticides are to be used in all City properties and exposure to any pesticides where children and general public congregate would be limited.3)City Council Regular Meeting Minutes, February 23, 2016 at 4pm, City Council Chamber, One Civic Center Plaza, Irvine, California 92606.

Although governments can be notorious for stagnation, that was not the case here. Members of NTI say that working with the City has been a very positive experience. “Soon after our online petition launched, we were asked to meet with Mayor Steven Choi and Councilwoman Christina Shea. They agreed to add us to their meeting agenda on February 23.” said Kim Konte another board member of NTI.

Christina Shea was the Council Member who put NTI’s request on the agenda.  “Our non toxic pesticide organic program is one of the first to be implemented in the State of California. I am a cancer survivor and I am acutely aware of the damaging effects of toxic chemicals in our lives and the environment.” said Council Member Shea. “Our non toxic organic program will be effective in eradicating weeds and pest infestations within our green belts, parks and open space, but not cause undue harm to our wildlife, family pets and our small and vulnerable children. It was my pleasure to bring forward this proposal with our Non Toxic Irvine parent partners.”

Of course, bringing about major change is rarely easy. When asked if they’ve encountered opposition, Ayn Craciun, a board member of NTI said, “Yes, of course. I like to think it’s mostly inertia—people who are used to doing things the way they’ve always done them and can’t see another way. Some people are afraid organic landscaping will cost more, but when you tell them it will actually cost less in the long run, they are more interested.”

Ayn Craciun, NTI Board Member at City maintained Northwood Community Park with daughter Nina (not pictured)
Ayn Craciun, NTI board member at City maintained Northwood Community Park with daughter Nina (not pictured)

Ayn became interested in working on this issue after experiencing a series of unexplained miscarriages. She began looking for answers and found numerous studies linking pesticide exposure to fetal death. “I want my kids to know that when something is wrong, you do your best to fix it. I want them to remember that I tried to do that.” said Ayn.

What began as isolated efforts by individuals in Irvine within their own communities or schools, became NTI in early 2015 when they banded together to successfully lobby the Irvine Unified School District to stop using Roundup, a commonly used pesticide, at schools. Soon after, NTI turned its focus to the City of Irvine. Thanks to NTI’s efforts, IUSD has adopted fully organic landscaping methods.

Private Properties within Irvine

Legally, the City’s decision only covers properties managed by the City and cannot extend to private properties such as property managed by home owners associations.

The following is a current list of approved chemicals for a community here in Irvine.

Current List of Approved Chemicals for a Community in Irvine

“Irvine has 230+ HOAs, and all but maybe 8 are still using a conventional pesticide regimen. We are trying to help people who reach out to us make changes in their communities by providing a toolkit – template letter, meeting comments, factsheet, and other support. It is a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding when we hear that a community is making a change in the right direction.” says Ayn.

Evaluating the Risk of Pesticide Exposure

Perhaps one major reason NTI has had success is because they do not use alarmist fearmongerer tactics. Instead, the group relies on data and science to spread awareness. One of their scientific advisers is Dr. Bruce Blumberg, a Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UC Irvine.

Dr. Bruce Blumberg
NTI adviser Dr. Bruce Blumberg, a Professor of Developmental and Cell Biology and Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UC Irvine.

Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (“IARC”) an arm of the World Health Organization (“WHO”) classified the chemical glyphosate, as a probable carcinogen in humans. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the United States.4) The chemical has already been proven to cause cancer in animals.5) “The major challenge with showing that a chemical causes cancer in humans [as opposed to animals] is that the cancer typically develops many years after exposure.” said Dr. Blumberg.

One of the most commonly used brand of herbicides that uses glyphosate as its active ingredient is Roundup, a product of the multinational agrochemical company, Monsanto.6) Roundup is an approved chemical in the list above.

“Timing [can make] effects permanent. That’s why it’s so important we protect children, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.” Dr. Bruce Blumberg

Should the Public Wait for the Final Word on Glyphosate from Federal and State Agencies?

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s stance on glyphosate has been unclear at best. In 1985, the EPA classified glyphosate as possibly carcinogenic to humans.7) Then in October of last year, the EPA published a report stating it was not a carcinogen.8) This month, to evaluate whether glyphosate is carcinogenic or not, the EPA was slated to hold public meetings with expert panelists. Just four days before the meetings were to take place on October 18th, the EPA announced that it would postpone the meeting following lobbying efforts by the agrichemical industry to cancel the meeting all together or at a minimum, to remove panelists who has ever spoken publicly on whether glyphosate is a carcinogen. No date has been set to reschedule the meeting.9)

At our state level, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) issued a statement one year ago of its intent to list glyphosate as a chemical known to cause cancer under Proposition 65.10) In response, Monsanto (the manufacturer of Roundup) filed a lawsuit in Fresno this year, (Monsanto Company v. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, et al, case number 16-CECG-00183) asking for the court to stop the OEHHA from listing glyphosate as a carcinogen and to declare the proposed listing of glyphosate as a carcinogen as unconstitutional. Numerous parties have joined the case and the next motion on calendar set for early December is a motion to dismiss filed by the OEHHA.

Roundup's Active and Inert Ingredients List
Roundup’s Active and Inert Ingredients List

But the potential harm to humans is not limited to cancer. In 1991, a group of scientists at the Wingspread Conference concluded that compounds introduced into the environment by human activity are capable of disrupting the endocrine system of animals … and humans.11)

Today, these chemical compounds are known as endocrine disruptor chemicals (“EDCs”) and they include chemicals such as bisphenol-A (“BPA”) and polychlorinated biphenyls (“PCBs”). EDCs can commonly be found in things we encounter every day including food, cosmetics, food containers and pesticides.12)

“These EDCs are chemicals with similar chemical properties to natural hormones, allowing them to interfere with the normal function of the endocrine system.” said Dr. Blumberg. Also significant is the timing of one’s exposure to EDCs. “Timing [can make] effects permanent. That’s why it’s so important we protect children, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.” added Dr. Blumberg.

But back to those who might say “everything can kill us, so what?” Well, it’s partially true; we encounter things that are harmful to us on a daily basis. Some carcinogens, we may accept as having more benefits than risks and voluntarily expose ourselves to, such as alcohol or the sun’s UV rays.13) Other chemicals, if enough people speak out, may be banned. One such example is the history of bisphenol-A (“BPA”), an estrogen mimicking chemical that has been used in plastics since the 1960s. Although the Food and Drug Administration declared BPA as safe in 2008, after repeated reports of negative health effects, they instituted a ban of BPA in 2012.14)

As of today, there remains disagreement and much controversy on the issue of whether glyphosate is harmful to humans. Today, we know there is sufficient evidence that it causes cancer in animals.15) Is it a stretch that what can cause cancer in animals could also cause cancer in humans? No, says Dr. Blumberg. “It is true that there are some instances where a chemical will have one effect in humans and another effect in animals but those are the exceptions, not the rule.” says Dr. Blumberg.

The question we should ask ourselves is should we wait for the final word that glyphosate or other pesticides are a carcinogen or EDC? Or should we err on the side of caution and take action now?

“Why risk exposing young people to a chemical that is a probable human carcinogen? There is a benefit and a risk with any decision you make in life. You have to accept that you might make the wrong decision. Which way do you want to be wrong?” asked Dr. Blumberg “With respect to EDCs and carcinogens, it is obviously prudent to reduce exposure to suspect chemicals. This is what we call a ‘no brainer’ unless you are the person who stands to benefit from the sales or use of the chemical in question.”


  • Reduce exposure to a chemical “probably” carcinogenic to humans
  • Reduce exposure to EDCs
  • Long term likely benefit of improved health, lower incidence of disease and lower health care expenditures
  • Cost savings with increased soil health, reduced water use and reduced cost of chemicals


  • Possible decrease in aesthetics
  • Manufacturer of chemicals/pesticides may suffer lower sales or may need to offer an alternative formulation
  • Landscaping companies may need to adopt new practices

What’s Next for the Non Toxic Irvine Movement

Even though they’ve already brought about significant change in Irvine, NTI says they have only just begun their work.

Adam Chavez, owner of Adam’s Falconry Service displays hawk trained to control scavenging birds such as seagulls and crows
Adam Chavez, owner of Adam’s Falconry Service displays falcon trained to control scavenging birds such as seagulls and crows

NTI is still working with the Irvine Unified School District on their Pesticide Management Policy and four of NTI’s board members serve on IUSD’s Pest Management Task Force. They have also met with The Irvine Company and are hopeful that they too will follow the City of Irvine’s lead. Most recently, the large community of Woodbridge, home to some 30,000 residents confirmed that they are working with the City to develop a pest management plan that is consistent with the City’s. NTI’s efforts are being recognized at the national level and like minded people in other cities are starting their own non toxic movements.

Of her efforts to make Irvine non toxic, Kim Konte’s 11 year old son said, “Mom, I had no idea such a small group of people could make such a big change.” “To know that we could have fewer families go through what Laurie and her family has makes every second, every meeting, every moment working on Non Toxic worth it.” said Kim.

If you’re interested in finding out what chemicals are being used in your neighborhood, contact your HOA and ask them to provide a list like the one above. For more information on how to work with your homeowner’s association (or cities outside of Irvine) to stop the use of toxic pesticides please contact NTI.

Want to send Non Toxic Irvine your thanks or have a question for them?

Connect with Non Toxic Irvine: Facebook | Instagram |


References   [ + ]

3. City Council Regular Meeting Minutes, February 23, 2016 at 4pm, City Council Chamber, One Civic Center Plaza, Irvine, California 92606.
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Portola High School: Founding Principles Prepare Students for the 21st Century

It has been 17 years since Irvine Unified School District opened a new high school in Irvine. It was history in the making on August 24, 2016, as Portola High School opened its doors to welcome freshman students for its inaugural year. Some 400 students now attend this brand new high school and the administration anticipates adding another 500-600 students each year. The school mascot is the Bulldog and you can already find students and administration showing off their school pride on social media using hashtags: #phswoof #phsclassof2020 #ptp.

Portola High gymnasium with mural of school mascot
Portola High gymnasium with mural of school mascot

The new school is located off of Irvine Boulevard adjacent to the Orange County Great Park and serves the neighborhoods of Beacon Park, Lambert Ranch, Los Olivos, Pavilion Park, Portola Springs, Stonegate, Woodbury and will eventually also serve Heritage Fields.1)

Great Expectations for Irvine’s Newest High School

In keeping with IUSD’s tradition of great schools, there are high expectations for Portola. Principal John Pehrson comes to Portola High after his 10 year appointment with University High School, also in Irvine. During that time, University High has consistently been ranked as one of the top high schools in the country by Newsweek, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and the Orange County Register.

Portola High School Principal, John Pehrson
Portola High School Principal, John Pehrson sports the school color purple

A husband, father, teacher and coach with a background in physics and chemistry, Principal Pehrson says his hopes for Portola are:

  • that Portola truly becomes a school where every student belongs, contributes and thrives
  • that we become a school that continues to embrace the ideas around preparing students for the 21st Century
  • that Portola carries on the IUSD culture of excellence while at the same time embodies its own sense of Pride and Spirit that becomes attractive and contagious to families

State-of-the-Art Facilities

Portola High School offers athletic facilities including a football stadium that seats approximately 3,000 people. Their aquatics center features a 50-meter Olympic sized pool with Colorado Timing Systems. As seniors, students will utilize the Innovation Lab for their “Senior Passion Project” to create a product or model, which they will present to a panel of academic, artistic or entrepreneurial experts. There is also a performing arts building with a 720-seat theater, black box and dance studio. Portola High also has a special education facility that will facilitate essential life skills.2)

Earlier in the construction process, there was some public concern over the safety of the school site, which the school district addressed here and here.

50 meter Olympic sized pool
50  meter Olympic sized pool
Innovation lab
Innovation lab where students will create a product or model for their “Senior Passion Project”

Leadership and Culture at Portola High

One concern that may be on the minds of students and parents at Portola (or any school in Irvine) is that the environment may be too competitive. While some competition can have a positive effect; competition can rise to unhealthy levels at top schools.

On the topic of over-competition, Principal Pehrson said, “We have worked diligently to create, promote and nurture a school program of balance, relevance and purpose.  We will continue to work with our PTSA and community to encourage extracurricular involvement by each student.”

My Mantra: Empowering and supporting people in their journey to reach their maximum potential. –Principal John Pehrson

Portola High students will be encouraged to find their talent and passions. “We will emphasize the idea of developing and pursuing a passion rather than spending every ounce of energy to do every single thing.  We will work with students through advisement to pick one or two interests to really delve into.” said Principal Pehrson.

At a recent event, parents of Portola High students were invited for a BBQ dinner followed by a tour of the campus and parent workshops, including a workshop titled: How to Find Balance While Preparing for College.

Parents of Portola High students attend a Bulldog BBQ Bash in the Student Union building
Parents of Portola High students attend a Bulldog BBQ Bash in the Student Union building

Principal Pehrson recognized the importance of academics but going beyond grades, he took the long view in his vision for the students of Portola High. “We will also focus more on 21st Century skills rather than conquering a set of curricula. While that is important, we know that the future job market will be looking for workers who are collaborative, team players, innovative, flexible, and can think on their own.  These are the skills on which we will focus and celebrate.  Over time, it is our hope that the community will believe in the system and structure we are setting up and will fully embrace and support it.”

To the future students of Portola High School, may this facility provide an environment to help “feed” your mind so you can in return “feed” the world. – Mac Byers, Senior Project Manager at CW Driver

Principal Pehrson’s mantra, which he has posted in his office: “Empowering and supporting people in their journey to reach their maximum potential.”

Inspired Design: The Active Green Roof Project of the Student Union Building

One of the architectural highlights of Portola High is the Student Union building. The building boasts a sleek, modern design and also features a state-of-the-art “active” green roof that utilizes numerous energy saving systems. The roof system was initially tested at Cal Poly Pomona under the direction of Professor Pablo La Roche and then implemented at Portola High by architecture firm, HMC Architects.

A traditional green roof is a roof of a building that is partially or completely covered with vegetation, providing insulation, reducing heating and cooling costs and reducing stormwater runoff.

Student Union Building featuring an active green roof
Student Union Building featuring an active green roof

Together with Professor La Roche, Eera Babtiwale, an Associate Principal of HMC Architects, designed this one-of-a-kind student union building.

How does the “active” green roof on the Student Union work to save energy and how is it unique from other green roofs?

Eera: The active green roof being implemented at Portola HS in the Irvine Unified School District is a prime example of how synergies between various systems can yield energy savings while simultaneously providing a sustainable living lab for students to learn from. 

Green roofs are typically applauded for their ability to provide thermal mass, a passive solar strategy used to efficiently cool a space, or maintain heat within a space. The active green roof at Portola High School however is unique. The system is composed of a modular green roof which communicates with the building’s HVAC and irrigation system, to passively cool and heat interior spaces, while simultaneously conserving water. 

Five Cutting Edge Features of the Active Green Roof:

  • Green roof feature: thermal mass of the roof passively insulates the building on cold days
  • Green roof feature: cool thermal mass of the active green roof passively cools the interior on warm days
  • Green roof feature: condensate water is collected to irrigate the green roof
  • Active feature: modular green roof communicates with the HVAC and irrigation system to passively cool and heat interior while saving water
  • Educational feature: sensors embedded in the green roof collect and send data to a computer station to teach students about how the green roof system is saving energy.

On cold weather days, the active roof uses thermal mass to keep the building warm. The thermal mass of the roof increases the thermal resistance value of the roof membrane, and thereby passively insulates the building. This reduces the need to mechanically heat the space.

[C]ondensate water that is generated from the air handling unit will be collected into in an underground water storage tank and reused to irrigate the green roof. – Eera Babtiwale of HMC Architects

During warm days, the green roof is able to cool the building. Air is pulled through intakes from the building perimeter and is then drawn across the underside of the active roof. As the air is drawn across, the cool thermal mass of the green roof cools the air. The air is then pushed down to spaces below to passively cool the interior. 

On days when it is too hot to rely on the active roof alone, the air conditioning will be automatically turned on. However, the condensate water that is generated from the air handling unit will be collected into in an underground water storage tank and reused to irrigate the green roof.  This creates a unique synergy because the active roof is able to retain its cooling potential best when it is well saturated. 

There were many decisions and commitments made early on by all stakeholders of the project that have contributed to the extraordinary success of the project. Every construction project has it challenges … but with this project and its high level of teamwork, many things went right. – Mac Byers of CW Driver

In addition to these benefits, the active green roof provides a means of capturing and filtering stormwater, cleaning particulates from the air and creating an acoustic buffer.

Architecture as an Tool for Sustainability Education

It was not enough that the building passively heats and cools itself, Eera and HMC wanted to use the building as an educational tool to teach people about sustainability.

Tell us why sustainability important to HMC and what its hopes are for those who learn about the active green roof project?

Eera: HMC Architects is passionate about using the building to teach and inspire people about sustainability. This is perhaps most important within a school environment, where our next generation of environmental stewards spend at least 5 hours of their day. These 5 hours provide amazing opportunity to educate and inspire students about sustainability. 

[E]verything we do has the ability to have a lasting and positive effect on our shared global environment. – Eera Babtiwale of HMC Architects

Embedded within the active green roof system is a series of sensors which relay soil temperature, soil saturation, air velocity and air temperature to the building management system. This data is collected and then compared to another classroom on campus, which does not have the active green roof system. This data will be made available to students via a computer station so that they too can learn about the active green roof system’s impact on energy use, water use and thermal comfort.

The hope is that they will see how their built environment has a profound effect on their natural environment—and that really everything we do has the ability to have a lasting and positive effect on our shared global environment.

Construction: From Organic Farmland to State of the Art Educational Facility in Under Two Years

Portola High was built by CW Driver, a California construction firm headquartered in Pasadena. Where you now see a state-of-the-art high school was wide open farmland less than two years ago. Mac Byers, Senior Project Manager of the Portola High project at CW Driver talked about the stringent building standards for the construction of this school and the completion of this project.

CW Driver was also the builder for Woodbury and Stonegate Elementary schools here in Irvine, how are education projects different from other types of projects CW Driver works on?

Mac: All educational project fall under the jurisdiction of DSA, Division of the State Architect.  Since they are used for children the design and construction standards are much higher than non-educational standards. Also, many districts like Irvine Unified School District will incorporate additional requirements to provide exceptional learning environments for the students of their district. IUSD, in conjunction with DSA also go to extensive measures to provide a safe and healthy environment for students, faculty and the community as a whole.

CW Driver’s onsite office
CW Driver’s onsite office

This project was divided into four smaller “elementary school” sized projects in order to accelerate the construction schedule. Now that this school will be open to brand new freshmen, how does it feel to see this project completed?

Mac: One of my favorite quotes is, “It is a miracle that anything gets built, whether it is a high-rise or a dog house!” When one considers that every component of a building comes from natural resource; trees, rock, oil, plants, etc. is manufactured, processed, formed to very specific requirements and delivered to a specific location at a specific time and then put together in an expedited manor, using hundreds of companies and thousands of workers, it is a miracle.

There were many decisions and commitments made early on by all stakeholders of the project that have contributed to the extraordinary success of the project. Every construction project has it challenges and problems but with this project and its high level of teamwork, many things went right. 

Portola High gymnasium with seating for 2,000+ people
Portola High gymnasium with seating for 2,000+ people

It is a tremendous satisfaction to have started with an open farm field some two years ago and now hand off a beautiful, start of the art educational facility. Land that was once used to feed the body is now land used to feed the mind! 

To the future students of Portola High School, may this facility provide an environment to help “feed” your mind so you can in return “feed” the world.

There are few milestones in a young person’s life that match that of being a freshman in high school, emotions floating somewhere between nerves and excitement. From its leadership to its design and construction, Portola High has set the tone in its founding principles for its students to become global thinkers of the 21st Century. GO BULLDOGS!

Portola High School
1001 Cadence
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 936-8202


References   [ + ]

1, 2.
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