SCHOOL DAYS, SICK DAYS
SCHOOL DAYS, SICK DAYS
In May 1997, fumes of two commonly used herbicides, 2,4-D and Roundup, wafted into classrooms through air conditioning ducts in Portland, Oregon's Alder Elementary School, as crews sprayed grounds just outside. 2,4-D (Weed-B-Gone, Lawn Keep), a component of Agent Orange, has produced serious eye and skin irritation among agricultural workers. The EPA has found dioxin, a hormone disruptor and carcinogen, in 2,4-D, and it has been associated with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Exposure to Roundup can cause gastrointestinal pain and vomiting. As a result of the incident, the school was evacuated and a dozen students were treated by paramedics for respiratory problems and nausea.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated case. Many pesticide-related accidents in schools are not reported or publicized. School administrators "...don't want to be liable and are afraid of the negative publicity," says Elizabeth Loudon of Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC). "And school nurses and teachers may not make a connection between flu-like symptoms in children and pesticide [applications]," Nor, according to Jerry Blondell of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are schools required to report pesticide-related incidents. Pest control in schools is virtually unregulated, and practices vary from district to district. And, despite the adverse health effects of pesticides, very few schools notify children and their parents when they plan to spray. "Children are unnecessarily and unknowingly exposed to pesticides in schools," says Greg Small, program director of Pesticide Watch in San Francisco. For example:
In February 1989, first-grader Michael Storey was hospitalized after swallowing granules of disulfoton, a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide used to control aphids and mites. Pest control operators had buried the granules under a blanket of snow around maple trees at his Yakima, Washington school. Nine days later, after snows melted, the granules surfaced. Disulfoton, whether inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, can cause a wide range of problems, from blurred vision to convulsions and coma.
From September 1992 to Spring 1993, children attending Cutten Elementary School in Humboldt, California suffered from chronic headaches, nausea, rashes and fatigue after chlorpyrifos (Dursban) was applied to the grounds in the fall to control termites. Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide, is commonly used in schools, according to Becky Riley of Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). Organophosphates disrupt normal nerve transmission in insects and can affect human nervous systems as well. Chlorpyrifos can also cause vision problems, dizziness, intestinal cramps and respiratory difficulties as well as chronic neurological disease from long term exposure. The insecticide was withdrawn from the market for some home uses in January 1997.
In October 1992, following a professional exterminator's weekend application of chlorpyrifos, diazinon and resmethrin to kill roaches in Eastchester High School in New York State, students returned on Monday morning to find puddles of pesticides on the floors and desks. Staff and students throughout the school experienced headaches, rashes, eye and respiratory irritation and nausea. One student was hospitalized. The cleanup required school officials to close the building for three weeks. Diazinon (Spectricide), another frequently applied organophosphate insecticide, can cause acute symptoms and chronic illness similar to chlorpyrifos. Resmethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid, can trigger asthma and cause skin irritations.
All too often school officials do not plan for pest management beyond implementing a spraying regime. But they should seek alternatives, because children are more vulnerable to pesticides than adults.
Kids' Vulnerability to Pesticides
"Children are more susceptible to pesticide exposure because their activities include playing in the grass," says Greg Small. "And their organs haven't developed enough to handle toxics." In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) noted in its report, Pesticides in the Diets of Children and Infants, that toxic exposures occurring early in life are "of special concern..." Young children have immature kidneys and lack certain enzymes, both of which eliminate toxins from adult bodies. Children's brains and nervous, immune and other systems are still developing and are vulnerable to toxins. Children may suffer more than adults when exposed to the same levels of some pesticides. The NAS found that quantitative and sometimes qualitative differences in toxicity of pesticides between children and adults exist. And, "Some pesticides, like flea sprays, layer out close to the ground in rooms so that even though an adult may not smell it, a child crawling on the ground would be exposed," says pediatrician Harvey Karp, M.D.
A 1995 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found a four-fold increase in the risk of soft-tissue sarcoma in children living in homes whose yards were treated with pesticides. The study also associates the use of pest strips containing the pesticide dichlorvos with incidences of leukemia. Another study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 1987, showed that children exposed to pesticides in the home or garden are three to six times more likely to contract leukemia than children who were not exposed.
Few school districts have implemented preventative tactics and non-chemical alternatives to manage pest problems. A 1996 survey of California schools, conducted by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, found that only six percent of the 556 responding school districts had a written policy, and 22 percent had a program, for pest management. According to Wendy Barber of California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), who investigated pesticide usage in 34 California schools, "School officials don't know what is going on with pest management." Barber says that either the school contracts outside pest control operators or maintenance staff buy and use pesticides -- in both cases, with lack of oversight.
A Healthier Alternative
A number of schools have adopted pest management policies that require reduction or even complete elimination of pesticide usage through the implementation of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM requires prevention, inspection and monitoring to reduce pest populations. If pest levels exceed established threshold levels, treatments are chosen that are the least disruptive to human health and the environment. IPM has been endorsed by the EPA, the National Education Association and the National PTA. Proponents of IPM argue that this pest control strategy is more effective than traditional pesticide applications. With an emphasis on prevention, "you are looking at what is causing the pest problem, such as sanitation, maintenance and the use of facilities," says Tanya Drlik of Bio-Integral Resource Center (BIRC) and co-author of IPM for Schools: A How-To Manual. Some simple solutions include caulking cracks to prevent entry of bugs and rodents, fixing leaks and cleaning up areas where roaches and ants harbor to eliminate sources of food and water. "Killing insects is not pest control," says Jim Moore, executive director of New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NYCAP).
Higher maintenance costs and some initial investments in equipment may make IPM more expensive in the first few years, but prevention makes IPM a less costly alternative in the long term by reducing the need to buy pesticides. The Washington State Department of Ecology, in their 1997 publication "Cost Analysis of Pest Control Methods," reports that, because IPM is more systematic and strategic than routine spraying, "studies show that the savings resulting from decreased use of pesticides offset the higher labor costs of pest monitoring." As Joseph Urbanowicz, director of facilities and transportation at Ardsley Union Free School District in Ardsley, New York, testified in a letter to NYCAP, after three years of applying IPM principles, the school district has fewer problems with pests, and is "not spending any more money using the IPM method than when we were using chemicals regularly." William Forbes, pest management specialist for Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, reports that pesticide costs were reduced up to 90 percent after IPM was implemented.
Some school districts include teachers and students in the implementation of IPM programs. In Dobbs Ferry School District, Moore introduced children to monitoring pests with simple traps made of sugar, water and paper cups. The experiment showed kids the kind of insects living in the environment and how they behave. "Pest control is boring, but learning about bugs by trapping them is fun," says Moore. Jane Willis, who serves on the parent education committee of the local PTA, wholeheartedly supports the children's involvement. "Children were our best advocates because they can take information about IPM home," Willis says.
WTC went further in their Model IPM Schools Project. In their garden at Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia, Washington, students hope to cultivate garlic, tomatoes and other vegetables organically. Parents helped students make mosaic bricks, using pieces of tile and concrete, for walkways around shrub beds, which reduce the area to be weeded. Horticulture students at the high school helped move shrub beds at the elementary school.
Concerned parents can, and should, take the initiative to get more progressive pest management into schools. And be patient. "The whole process involves educating, educating, educating," says Jerry Hogan, a grandmother who has been working with the Fulton School District in New York State on IPM strategies and other environmental issues for eight years. "A lot of this stuff is new, so we are all learning together."
WHAT YOU CAN DO
1. Ask your school district if a pest management policy is in place. Find out if it limits or bans the use of pesticides and includes notification of pesticide applications. If not, consider campaigning for a policy based on IPM.
2. Create a coalition with other parents. "We've found that when parents are involved, they really drive the process," says Erika Schreder of WTC.
3. Do your homework. Find out what the pest problems are in your school and how they are treated. Research the health impact of the pesticides used. Seek least-toxic solutions to these pest problems and determine approximate costs. See Resources for help.
4. Determine what you want in a policy. Decide whether you want a complete ban on pesticides or a policy which allows for one-time spraying on a case-by-case basis. Address both indoor and outdoor pest control. If you feel the school district may be averse to an IPM program, suggest a test project. After Hogan discovered that grounds crews at Fulton Schools were still using 2,4-D, despite having implemented IPM indoors, school administrators agreed to set one athletic field aside to test non-chemical strategies.
5. Meet with school staff. Present your information without being confrontational. Speak with groundskeepers and maintenance staff as well as the administrators and teachers. Learn their point of view, advises Moore. "You have to get down to budgetary issues and the issues of maintaining structural facilities and long-term grounds care," he says.
6. Develop a policy and action program. Get them in writing. Remember, staff and administrators will come and go, and you want a long-term commitment. Include input from the maintenance staff, who will be implementing the policy. Request funding for training, and include provisions for parental notification if pesticides must be applied. Suggest hiring an IPM coordinator to ensure that the policy is followed, and create an oversight committee consisting of parents, school staff and members of the community.
Written by: Aisha Ikramuddin
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