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Pesticides in Schools: From Indifference to Concern

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Three years ago, whenever janitors or outside contractors used pesticides at her school, Faith Glerum, then a 5th grader, became very ill.

For two days after each application, her mother reports, the Glen Ridge (N.J.) Middle School pupil would get red blotches on her face, swollen ears, and a sore throat. And when janitors applied an extra dose of the pesticide diazinon to rid the school of roaches, she says, Faith lost her sense of balance.

Several years and countless arguments with school officials later, Gigi Glerum is still demanding that the officials provide a pesticide-free environment for her "chemically sensitive'' daughter, now enrolled in another school district.

Ms. Glerum, along with other parents, school employees, and environmental activists nationwide, maintain that schools have become the unlikely dumping ground for highly toxic chemicals that have not been adequately tested by the Environmental Protection Agency for their potential health effects.

These critics have been joined by a growing number of federal, state, and local officials in arguing that the public, including school personnel, does not realize that pesticides have not been deemed entirely "safe'' by the EPA, and that chemicals are frequently applied by individuals ignorant of their toxicity.

For those reasons, the critics say, pesticide use should be severely restricted around children, who have more vulnerable immune systems than adults. They cite dozens of instances across the country in which children have reportedly become ill after pesticides were applied in schools.

"Basically, in our society, toxic chemicals are considered safe until proven otherwise,'' says Mary O'Brien, the information coordinator for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

It should be the other way around, she insists; the burden of proof should be on those who make the chemicals to prove that they are safe.

In response to these concerns, the Congress is considering amendments to the federal pesticide-control law. States, too, are showing greater interest in pesticide regulation. And a number of school districts, deciding that chemical pesticides are both unnecessary and unduly risky, have adopted guidelines that greatly reduce their use.

Public Unaware

Although it has been 25 years since the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the public remains uninformed about the risks posed by pesticides, critics charge.

Once regarded as mainly an agricultural problem, pesticide use has increased dramatically in both urban and suburban areas over the past 20 years. In 1984, notes a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office on nonagricultural pesticides, nearly 1.5 billion pounds of the chemicals were used in the United States.

Although about 80 percent of all pesticides are applied in farming, some believe that urban and suburban dwellers are now subjected to more concentrated doses of the chemicals than are farmers.

Yet, notes the GAO report, consumers are frequently unaware of a pesticide's potential health risks.

Part of the problem, states the report, is the label that is required on all pesticides.

Many consumers interpret the label, which lists an EPA registration number, as proof that the chemical is safe, the report notes. But that indicates only that the product has been registered, not that it has been tested.

In fact, the EPA has tested very few chemicals for all potential side-effects and will not complete that process until the next century.

School Use Increasing

Although no national figures exist on the frequency of pesticide applications on school grounds, experts say the practice is widespread and that schools have increased their use of pesticides over the years.

School maintenance programs routinely involve treatments for indoor pests, such as ants and roaches, and outdoor problems with weeds and lawn care.

According to a 1987 survey by the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based advocacy group, 21 of 38 Chicago-area school districts questioned said they applied pesticides at least once a month.

The survey, which also examined chemical usage in 11 Southern districts, found that 10 used pesticides.

In two California counties, according to 1986 and 1987 surveys by Citizens for a Better Environment, a San Francisco group, all but one school district regularly applied pesticides. Only one of the districts in Alameda County and none in Contra Costa County had a comprehensive pest-management policy at the time of the survey.

Many of the school districts in Contra Costa, the group also found, violated federal and county pesticide regulations.

Few Are Concerned

Despite the widespread use of pesticides, few organizations representing the occupants of school buildings have closely examined the amount or types of chemicals applied.

Neither major teachers' union, for example, has expressed a position on the issue. And the two unions that represent many school janitors and food-service workers--the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees--say their concern is for better training for their members who apply chemicals.

The National PTA, in contrast, called on state and local officials in 1985 to monitor school pesticide use more diligently and to promote less toxic solutions to pest problems.

Unknown Risks

Opponents of pesticide use argue that routine sprayings inside schools and on school grounds are unnecessary. And because some of the pesticides most widely used by schools have been linked to short- and long-term health problems, they say, school officials should pay greater attention to the programs they authorize.

Some of the pesticides viewed as dangerous are:

  • Diazinon. Normally used in schools to control both indoor and outdoor pests, this product was banned last month by the EPA for use on golf courses and sod farms because waterfowl had died after its application;
  • Lindane. An ingredient in head-lice shampoo, Lindane was found in large quantities in Love Canal, N.Y., an area blighted by toxic wastes;
  • 2,4-D. Applied on school lawns and athletic fields, this chemical is a component of Agent Orange. Late last year, in a federal district court in Marshall, Tex., a jury for the first time concluded that 2,4-D was linked to a worker's death; it awarded the family of a former forestry worker $1.5 million. The case is being appealed by the product's manufacturers.

After a recent study by the National Cancer Institute linked 2,4-D with elevated levels of certain types of cancers among Kansas farmers, ChemLawn, the country's largest lawn-care company, stopped using the pesticide.

"ChemLawn doesn't want to be responsible for workers who use 2,4-D,'' says Ms. O'Brien. "Why should school districts?''

Chemical Sensitivity

As more chemically sensitive students and teachers make their complaints known, experts predict, schools will be under increasing pressure to maintain a pesticide-free environment.

In some districts, parents have successfully pressed to have their children classified as special-education students to remove them from exposure to pesticides, and in many cases to allow them to be taught at home. And teachers in a Contra County, Calif., school district, are pressing to have a defined pest-management policy be part of their contract negotiations.

According to some experts, frequent exposure to pesticides, many of which resemble nerve gas in their composition, results in a weakened immune system and a heightened sensitivity to all chemicals. They argue that chemically sensitive individuals can experience flu-like symptoms when exposed to even minute amounts of such chemicals.

Chemically sensitive children and teachers are also more likely to miss days of school, some observers say, and to feel that they are not performing at their best.

Faith Glerum, for example, missed between one-quarter and one-third of the school year because of her allergic reaction to the pesticides, according to her mother.

But because the reactions of chemically sensitive people are difficult to link unequivocally to exposure to pesticides, school officials, industry spokesmen, and even physicians are often skeptical. That lack of sympathy and understanding, when combined with the frequent absences from school, can have a profound effect on a child's academic performance, some experts maintain.

"If a child has a problem in school because his nervous system is being depressed, that is going to affect him as an adult because he won't be able to read or write properly,'' says Beverly Paigen, a senior research biochemist at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Oakland, Calif.

"Pesticides have been selected because they kill pests,'' she argues. "They adversely affect all living things, whether they are insects, animals, or children.''

As a result, notes Victor M. Sher, a lawyer for the Sierra Club National Defense Fund, Inc., school districts that continue to spray pesticides as a matter of course could be subject to lawsuits.

"If you stop and think about it, spraying kids in schools or in any state program is like grabbing them and giving them a very lethal drug,'' he says. "They can't say no.''

Neurotic Disorder'

Many others, however, hotly dispute the existence of a condition called "chemical sensitivity.''

"We feel that there may indeed be some people who are hypersensitive out there, but their occurrences are extremely rare,'' says Barry Troutman, director of education for the Professional Lawn Care Association. "In general, these people list such a wide range of chemicals. It seems unrealistic from a medical standpoint that someone could be sensitive to that wide a range of products.''

Joel Paul, a spokesman for the National Pest Control Association, contends that many people who claim they are chemically sensitive are actually allergic to the pests that the chemical is supposed to control. Others, he says, have "delusory parasitosis, a distinct fear of insects. It's a neurotic disorder of people that can never be controlled.''

Slow Process

Both the EPA and the environmental activists agree that the federal law that regulates pesticides contains serious flaws that prevent the agency from fully carrrying out its regulatory function.

Since 1972, when the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) was amended by the Congress, the EPA has been required to look at the potential risks of all pesticides. No pesticide can be registered, the law mandates, until the agency determines that its use would not cause "unreasonable effects on the environment.''

The approximately 50,000 pesticides on the market at the time were allowed to remain in use until the agency was able to re-register them.

Later amendments to the law required the agency only to review the results of tests performed on the pesticides' active ingredient--the chemical that kills or controls the pest--before a product could be registered or re-registered. There are 600 such active ingredients in various pesticides.

But this process, the critics claim and the agency acknowledges, has been painfully slow. To date, only 4 of the 600 have been fully reassessed, and many have not received a preliminary evaluation. Even the most optimistic observers believe that the task will not be completed before the middle of the 21st century.

"A lot of people think, 'Gee, this is terrible to have all these unexamined chemicals out there,''' says Anne Lindsay, chief of the policy and special projects division of the agency's office of pesticides programs. "But they have to understand that according to FIFRA, in order to avoid some pretty severe economic effects, we can't decide to take chemicals off the market without the data.''

The agency's special review process for chemicals believed to be especially hazardous is equally slow, averaging between two and six years.

Experts say the chemicals commonly used in schools are not high on the priority list of the agency's pesticide program.

Because most pesticides are used for agriculture, the E.P.A. has focused most of its attention on chemicals that affect food products. And in recent public remarks, agency officials have said they expect to place greater emphasis on reviewing chemicals that they have already begun to evaluate than on beginning new evaluations.


"When we register a product, we're not saying that it is safe,'' said Edward Tinsworth, director of the registration division of the EPA's office of pesticide programs at a recent forum held by the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. "We're saying that there is no unreasonable risk, which means there may be a risk.''

Advocates for the environment and agency officials are quick to list the pesticide law's deficiencies, such as the requirement that the EPA buy up the entire stock of any chemical it wants to ban. Such a budget-busting provision, both sides agree, makes the agency think twice before it takes that final regulatory step. But environmentalists maintain that the law is also fundamentally flawed because it:

  • Requires that the chemical be evaluated through a cost-benefit analysis, instead of on a health-based standard;
  • Allows the manufacturer to perform the tests;
  • Does not require testing on the health effects of a pesticide's full formulation, which includes both the active ingredient and its secondary ingredients, known as inert ingredients.

When most people hear about the inadequacies of the law for the first time, says Ms. O'Brien, "we say they go into FIFRA-shock.''

Untrained Applicators

Experts also say that schools may be adversely affected by the law's weak requirements for training pesticide "applicators''--those who spray or otherwise apply the chemical treatments.

Every state determines its requirements for certification, which the E.P.A. requires for access to certain chemicals. Typically, an applicant for certification must attend a multi-week class and pass a written test.

Despite the certification process, however, FIFRA allows noncertified applicators to use pesticides under the supervision of a certified applicator. As a result, many people who spray on school grounds, including both outside contractors and school janitors, may not have attended the course or passed the examination.

In addition, because of a loophole in the federal law, many states allow noncertified school janitors and other noncommercial applicators to apply restricted products because they do not personally profit from spraying.

"People like school janitors are much less likely to get training,'' says Ron Brickman, who is coordinating a study on the training that pesticide applicators receive for both the EPA and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

"They are much more likely to just read the label, which could be very confusing,'' he says.

An amended version of FIFRA, now being considered by a Senate committee, would require more training for these noncertified applicators.

The amended legislation also requires pesticide manufacturers to pay a fee to fund the E.P.A.'s registration effort, which, under the bill, would be completed in a decade. The bill also calls for the regulation of inert ingredients, and would allow the agency to ban products without paying for their recall.

Interest in regulating pesticide use has been growing among state and local governments, as well as at the federal level.

State and Local Activity

In February, New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams filed a lawsuit against ChemLawn, a firm that services many schools, for advertising that its products are "practically nontoxic'' and "do not present a health risk.''

In New Jersey, a proposed regulation would require notices to be posted in all public buildings, including schools, before a pesticide is applied.

And in Oregon, following several incidents in which children and staff members became ill after pesticide applications at schools, the state's department of human resources sent suggested guidelines for pesticide use to all superintendents.

On the local level, some school systems have adopted policies that either greatly reduced or eliminated the use of pesticides on school grounds. Among the districts are Berkeley, Calif., Eugene, Ore., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, N.Y.

Most of the new policies require districts to consider all alternatives to pesticides before they spray. And if they do have to spray, they can use chemicals only when students will not be on or near school grounds.

"We really didn't have a policy, we had practices,'' said Patrick Sandro, the assistant superintendent for operations for the Grand Rapids school district.

"Now,'' he says, "rather than have a routine spraying--what some people would call a 'bombing'--we select areas where we observe a problem.''

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