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Bill Before New York Lawmakers would Ban Use of Pesticides on School Playing Fields

Syracuse, NY -- Children race out of their classrooms onto green, fluffy grass playing fields. They tumble and slide, roll around and laugh. Their pants turn green from grass stains. They rub their eyes and faces. They drop water bottles and snacks onto the lawn.

The lush grass helps to protect their knees from scrapes and guards them against serious injury. But the grass also could make them sick, according to environmental advocates and numerous scientific studies.

Many schools in the state use pesticides on their athletic fields to kill bugs, pests and weeds. A number of scientific studies have shown that exposure to pesticides can increase children's risk for cancer, exacerbate asthma and trigger seizures.

Environmental advocates are lobbying state lawmakers to ban pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on playgrounds and athletic fields in public and private schools and at day care centers. The Legislature is expected to debate the bill today as part of a package of Earth Day legislation. It's not clear if it will pass. It has died in the state Senate nine times before.

Chemical companies are pressing lawmakers to vote against the bill. They say pesticides are highly regulated and safe to use.

Children are especially susceptible to pesticides because of their small size and still-developing organs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Rather than a purely chemical approach, the agency recommends schools use Integrated Pest Management, which combines several more organic and less toxic techniques to manage pests and weeds, such as overseeding, mowing grass taller, watering less and applying "compost tea," a liquefied form of compost.

"Put simply, IPM is a safer, and usually less costly option for effective pest management in a school community," EPA regulators said.

A 2000 study by the state attorney general's office, the most recent available, found that 87 percent of schools in New York use pesticides, with almost 65 percent using pesticides outdoors.

Central New York may be ahead of the curve. "Most schools (in this area) don't use pesticides or herbicides," North Syracuse School District grounds crew leader Jim Popielarczyk said.

Popielarczyk said his district used herbicides on a few infested fields four or five years ago, but it has since stayed away from chemical treatments. "We've had no trouble and our fields are beautiful," said Wayne Bleau, North Syracuse's assistant superintendent for management services.

However, some local districts continue to use chemicals. "Our board's policy recognizes the dangers of pesticides, but at the same time realizes there are cases where we might have to use something," said Joe Hammond, director of facilities for Liverpool Central School District.

Hammond said Liverpool's grounds crew spreads a granular "weed and feed" once or twice a year. "We use it very sparingly," he said. "We have 36 grass fields. We might do one or two fields per year." 

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