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In California District, Chemicals Are Used as Last Resort

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BERKELEY, CALIF.--Before the Berkeley Unified School District adopted its pest-management program in 1985, Calvin Simmons's job was much simpler.

Before, if a teacher or administrator complained about a cockroach infestation, Mr. Simmons, as the district's supervisor of buildings and grounds, could quickly call for a pesticide application.

Nowadays, Mr. Simmons has to seek clearance from the city's department of health every time he wants to use a chemical pesticide--including ones that could be bought at a neighborhood drugstore.

Berkeley's policy, like others in a handful of districts across the country, require school officials to consider all alternatives before they apply pesticides. Such strict regulations are necessary, school and city officials say, because of the unknown health consequences of pesticide use.

Emphasizing Prevention

The Berkeley district's policy is part of an overall plan adopted by the city to reduce its dependence on pesticides. Each city agency was required to adopt its own pest-management plan for each anticipated pest problem. The plans were then reviewed by a 10-member pest-management subcommittee.

In each plan, chemical pesticides could be used only as an action of last resort. Instead, city and school officials were required to:

  • Monitor and record each pest population;
  • Determine an "injury level''--how much or many of the pest would be tolerated before any action was taken;
  • Identify all nonchemical alternatives to pesticides that could be used to control a particular pest, including traps, the pest's natural enemies, and hand-weeding.

To implement the policy, Berkeley's grounds staff has placed great emphasis on preventative education, and has told both teachers and administrators that certain sanitation and housekeeping measures can reduce the number of pests in their classrooms and offices.

On a recent tour of the Columbus Elementary School, for example, Mr. Simmons told teachers to closely monitor the crumbs left in the basins of classroom sinks. "That attracts ants and cockroaches,'' he said, pointing to the leftovers of an afternoon snack.

Integrated Pest Management

Sheila Daar, executive director of the Bio-Integral Resource Center in Berkeley, says about 20 districts nationwide have adopted similar pest policies, which are frequently called "integrated pest management'' plans.

The centerpiece of all these policies, she says, is close monitoring of an area's pest population and the use of nontoxic pest-control methods.

"If you've got to spray on a regular basis, you're not solving your pest problem in the long run,'' said Ms. Daar at a recent forum organized by the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. "Many of these techniques have been around for a long time, but because of the emphasis on pesticides, they have not been used in any great numbers.''

In many instances, said Ms. Daar, a pest problem can be resolved through different gardening practices. Many weed pests would be eliminated, she pointed out, if a district planted a type of grass suitable to the local soil. And because some weeds and insects are attracted to moisture, a district could eliminate problems by changing its watering patterns, she added.

Similarly, she said, by caulking up all holes, a maintenance staff could reduce the number of ants and cockroaches inside the building. And boric acid, if properly applied, is a less toxic method of killing indoor pests, she said.

Time and Money

To make pest management work, said Ms. Daar, school officials may have to make an initial investment in new equipment. Moreover, unlike chemical pesticides, she said, the program does not yield instantaneous results.

In Berkeley, said Mr. Simmons, the district cut its annual pesticides bill by more than two-thirds between 1985 and 1987--from $10,000 to $3,000.

But because of the district's budgetary problems, the department has not been given additional funds either to do much-needed preventative work or to hire additional gardeners. As a result, the school system relies on a band of scofflaws working off parking-ticket violations to weed its grounds on the weekends.

In Eugene, Ore., where a similar plan for the school district's grounds has been in effect since late 1984, pest management is "almost more trouble than it is worth,'' said Brian Lee, the district's facilities, grounds, and shops supervisor.

"We've been trying some of the exotic equipment we've been buying, but nothing seems to work as well as the chemicals,'' he said.

"We have a lot of second-class facilities here now,'' he said. "We used to have first-class.''

"It might work very well in Arizona or California,'' Mr. Lee said, "but here in wet, humid, Oregon, things grow fast.''--EF

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