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Scripps Howard News Service
August 14, 2001
Concern grows over school pesticide use
BY: JOAN LOWY
Schools throughout the country are taking steps to curb their use of
pesticides in the face of mounting public concern that the chemicals may be
harming children's health.
More than 30 states have laws or policies - most adopted in the last four
years - that either restrict the use of pesticides in some way or that
require parents be notified about the use of pesticides in their child's
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District - the nation's second
largest with about 800,000 students - became the first major school district
to ban the use of pesticides in most circumstances. Massachusetts is also
phasing out the use of most pesticides in schools. As children begin a new
school term in the next few weeks, Congress is set to take up legislation
that would require all public schools to formally notify parents about
pesticide use three times a year and permit them to sign up for a registry
of parents to be notified 24 hours in advance of each application.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., would also
require schools to adopt policies that emphasize non-chemical or less toxic
responses to pest problems, like sealing cracks and using baits and gels
instead of sprays, and to reduce children's exposure by requiring that areas
be unoccupied for at least 24 hours when pesticides are applied.
The Senate added the measure to a school-funding bill. It picked up the
support of the pesticide industry after pesticide opponents agreed to drop
their effort to bar the use of specific pesticides believed to be the most
dangerous to children.
The amendment is not part of the House version of the education bill, and
key House members have vowed to kill it when the two bodies meet to work out
differences in the bills.
The National School Boards Association and the American Association of
School Administrators, who oppose the measure, complain that it will cost
too much, create unnecessary paperwork and make schools safer for
cockroaches, flies, rats and weeds.
"Congress said they weren't going to pass any more unfunded mandates.
is an unfunded mandate,'' said Marshall Trammell Jr., a spokesman for the
school boards association and chairman of the Chesterfield County School
Board in Virginia.
Only about 1 percent of parents ask to be included in notification
registries in school districts where registries are available, according to
the pesticide industry.
Pesticide opponents acknowledge that the notification requirements are
primarily means to increase public pressure on schools to reduce pesticide
"If we give parents the information and the right to know what their
children are exposed to ... it may force parents to become a little more
active and demand the principal and school authorities become more
conscientious about what is being used and how it's being used,'' said Nancy
Chuda, president of the Children's Environmental Health Coalition. "Most
parents don't even know their children's classrooms are being sprayed.''
Concern over pesticide use in schools is fueled by an alarming trend in
childhood diseases, including dramatic increases in asthma, birth defects
involving the genitals of male infants, and incidences of childhood cancer,
including a 39 percent increase in brain cancer and a 10 percent increase in
acute lymphocytic leukemia.
There is growing evidence that chemicals in the environment, including
pesticides, may be contributing to some illnesses.
Children are especially vulnerable to toxic substances. Pound for pound,
they eat more food, drink more water, and breathe more air than adults, all
of which exposes them more heavily to chemicals. Their brains and other
organs are still developing and their bodies are less able to detoxify
Scientists caution that just because EPA registers a pesticide for use
doesn't necessarily mean it can't have harmful effects on people. Little or
no research has been done on the cumulative, long-term effects of children's
exposure to many pesticides, especially exposure to combinations of
"The scientific community isn't even close to understanding what the real
effects of being exposed to these mixtures are,'' said John Wargo, professor
of risk analysis and environmental policy at Yale University and author of
"Our Children's Toxic Legacy.'' "It's really quite an uncontrolled
experiment that we're conducting'' on the general population.
The American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs concluded
in a 1997 report that given the "particular uncertainty ... regarding the
long-term health effects of low-dose pesticide exposures," it is "prudent''
for adults and children to limit their exposure and to "consider the use of
the least toxic chemical pesticides or nonchemical alternatives.''
The General Accounting Office reported last year that it could find no
credible statistics on how much pesticide is used in the nation's 110,000
public schools, how often students are exposed to toxic chemicals or what
the health effects are.
There are about 50 types of pesticides commonly used by schools, some of
which can cause reproductive problems, neurological problems, kidney and
liver damages, and cancer in laboratory animals, according to the National
Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.
School pesticide policies vary widely from state to state. No state has a
policy or law as comprehensive as the Senate amendment, although some states
are stricter in some aspects.
Sixteen states require some form of notification to parents about pesticide
use in schools. Alabama, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey and North
Carolina have established buffer zones or other limitations that prohibit
aerial or ground spraying of pesticides near schools.
Last November, 35 elementary school students and teachers in Ventura County,
Calif., became ill after a cloud of the pesticide Lorsban drifted into their
school from a nearby lemon orchard.
After more than 30 years on the market, nearly all home and garden use of
Lorsban - also known as Dursban - was banned by the Environmental Protection
Agency last year and new restrictions were imposed on its agricultural use
because of evidence that the insecticide can be dangerous to children.
In Ventura County alone there are 92 schools within a quarter of a mile of
an agricultural operation. As a result of the incident, the California state
assembly has passed a bill that would give county agricultural commissioners
authority to impose conditions on the use of pesticides on farms near
schools. The measure is awaiting action in the state Senate.
On the Net:
Children's Environmental Health Coalition - www.checnet.org
Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment - www.pestfacts.org
Joan Lowy is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail