A new EPA plan would cut school pesticide use by 70 percent or more, but some say children and teachers should be protected by mandates, not voluntary guidelines.
Fifteen years ago, a young boy in Bloomington, Indiana, was frequently sick with respiratory problems and other ailments. His symptoms appeared suddenly, and were so severe that he visited his doctor monthly and missed many school days.
His mother began to suspect that something in his elementary school classroomwas the culprit.School officials discovered that pesticides had been sprayed on the school grounds and inside the boy’s classroom the day before his latest illness.
“His teacher really did not like bugs, so she’d asked specifically for her classroom to be sprayed,” said Jerry Jochim, an environmental technician at the Monroe County Community School Corporation.
The incident prompted the school district in 1997 to become one of the first in the nation to overhaul its pest control program, spraying pesticides only as a last resort. Relying on better housekeeping rather than chemicals, schools there have cut pesticide use by 92 percentand also have saved money and reduced complaints about insects and rodents.
Now, many public schools across the United States soon will be following in Monroe County’s footsteps, under a plan unveiledin January by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Under the EPA’s plan, all public schools are encouraged to adopt integrated pest management practices by 2015, which experts calculate will reduce use of pesticides by at least 70 percent. Integrated pest management, or IPM, relies on custodians, teachers and students to manage pests by emptying trash cans daily, keeping floors clean, storing leftover food in sealed containers and minimizing pest entry points.
“There are many practices that a school can adopt that take little or no effort to implement,” according to EPA spokesman Dale Kemery.
The strategy has been successful in pilot schools, which have reduced their pesticide use by around 90 percent, EPA officials said.
The new plan is not a federal mandate, but a set of recommendations for implementing IPM. The plan includes no funding to help schools switch from conventional pest management, and there are no enforcement measures to ensure that schools heed the EPA’s recommendations.
IPM experts, environmental health advocates and many school officials support the plan, though some fear it falls short of protecting children and teachers from pesticides.
“Integrated pest management basically relies on common sense to avoid pest problems,” said Thomas Green of the non-profit IPM Institute of North America, who was involved in drafting the plan. “It can require some start-up investment – installing door sweeps on exterior doors, for example – but those eventually save money because the school can spend less on pesticides.”
Many schools currently rely on periodic pesticide sprayings, which can be excessive in volume and frequency, to kill ants, roaches and other pests.
"Over 80 percent of schools in America are applying pesticides on a regular basis, whether they have a pest problem or not,"Indiana University entomologist Marc Lame,who serves as a consultant for schools around the country, said in a recent report.