It was the nightmare of every family living in a vineyard town. On May 5 in the hamlet of Villeneuve-de-Blaye, a village of 400 people in northern Bordeaux surrounded by vines, a group of grade-school children and a teacher went outside for morning recess. By the end of the morning, 24 kids and the teacher were coughing, suffering from stomach aches, sore throats, irritated eyes, headaches and nausea. Their symptoms worsened and, by 1:30, school principal Jean-Daniel Sans dialed the French equivalent of 911 for a medical emergency.
Two local winegrowers had sprayed for mildew at the same time that morning, and the wind carried the fungicides into the schoolyard. The incident has heated up an ongoing debate on reducing chemical sprays in French wine regions and has also revived arguments on the rules governing spraying.
After the call for help went out, an emergency crew from the fire department arrived. The children were treated on site, but the teacher was taken to urgent care. Luckily, there have been no lasting symptoms.
Many vineyard communities do not allow spraying during school hours, but it’s not a law. It is against the law, however, to spray certain chemicals when the wind is strong.
The Villeneuve incident grew more heated when people learned that one of the growers who sprayed next to the school is the town mayor, Catherine Verges. In other villages, it is the mayor who coordinates with winegrowers to schedule spraying to minimize risk for neighbors. Verges has categorically denied any connection between the chemicals and the children's sudden onset of illness.
However, an investigation by the Gironde prefect established that the fungicides used, while legal and common for treating mildew, are only allowed when the weather permits—mainly that winds are low. The investigation also reported that the children's symptoms match known effects of fungicide exposure.
While the government did not have legal grounds for charging the growers, “everything indicates that the spraying of the products in proximity of the school took place under inappropriate conditions without taking all the precautions for the neighborhood,” stated the report.
According to several sources, including Bernard Farges, president of the Bordeaux trade group CIVB, and the Board of Education inspector for the school district, Pierre Kessas, this was an isolated case.
“We are not against the winegrowers, but it’s our job to make sure the kids are safe while they are at school,” Kessas told Wine Spectator. Many of the parents expressing concern work in local vineyards and cellars.
Kessas said 10 out of 60 schools in his sector were surrounded by vineyards. “But most of the growers use common sense. They don’t spray during school hours. In some towns, it’s not allowed. They spray in the morning or in the evening.”
Farges said that he did not wish to minimize the incident but asked to keep everything in perspective. “They were treated with aspirin and they’re all fine.”
Some people have questioned whether the situation could have been avoided by using organic farming methods, but Farges said that was not the solution in this case. Vine treatments allowed in organic farming “can also cause irritations, and are not what we want children inhaling.” The prefecture has ordered a plan to officially identify vulnerable schools and put in place a higher level of protection, including hedges, protection barriers, and adapting spraying hours.