A Bug’s Life . . . And Death

February 01, 1999 4 min read

But nowadays, Boyd, a high school junior, is breathing easier, thanks to a new pest-control program that the Brevard County district adopted three years ago. Developed by the state with help from university entomologists, the program reduces the need for pesticides in schools by improving sanitation. “Before, if you said bug spray made you sick, people thought you were psycho,” says Boyd, who has been diagnosed with a chemical-sensitivity disorder. “Now people are more open-minded about it.”

In fact, some 85 percent of districts in bug-rich Florida have signed on to the voluntary pest-control program, many to avoid potential lawsuits. “Pesticides are a useful tool,” says Eric Althouse, environmental coordinator for the state education department, “but every time we use one, we take a risk that we could have a misapplication or accidental poisoning.”

Florida isn’t alone. Over the past decade, Louisiana, Michigan, Texas, and West Virginia have all adopted laws or regulations to reduce pesticide use in schools. Experts estimate that thousands of districts nationwide have traded in their spray cans for vacuums.

“I say if you smell a musky odor, your kitchen isn’t clean,” says Katy Elkin, manager of the kitchen at Andersen Elementary School in Brevard County. Though her shift ends at 2:15 p.m., Elkin often stays until 6, scrubbing floor drains, sweeping up crumbs, and cleaning and shining huge metal pots used to prepare soup for the school’s 600 children. “You have to stay on top of this, or you have bugs,” she says. “Grease is what they love.”

At nearby Spacecoast Middle School, janitors sweep through the cafeteria moments after the school’s 1,150 students finish lunch each day. The crew wipes the tables with a low-toxicity disinfectant, carts the trash to an outside Dumpster, and polishes the floors. Within 30 minutes, the room is sparkling again. “If we didn’t clean, we’d be overrun with roaches and centipedes,” head custodian Andy Steinert says. “Every bug in Florida would move in quick.”

District administrators also ask employees to keep any food they have at school in air-tight containers. Larry Graves, principal at Spacecoast, has even imposed dining restrictions. Staff members, including teachers, are prohibited from eating anywhere but in the cafeteria and one other designated room. Coffee and soft drinks are not allowed in classrooms. Graves describes the rules as preventative measures. “We aren’t doing it to be punitive,” he says.

Bugs, rodents, and other pests may pose health risks to children. Rats can carry viruses. Cockroaches and their droppings have been linked to asthma. And some spiders are deadly. Last year, three Florida children died after being bitten by fire ants. Still, many of the chemicals that schools use to fight such pests can be just as dangerous, says Richard Smith, industrial hygienist for the 69,000-student Brevard County system. “Just because you see a palmetto bug is no reason to lace the room with pesticides,” he says.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says studies have shown that pesticides such as organophosphates--still used in many schools nationwide--have been associated with cancers, nervous-system dysfunction, seizures, and birth defects. Though effects vary depending on the toxicity of the pesticide and the length of exposure, children are more sensitive than adults to most substances.

Before adopting the state’s new program, Brevard County school officials regularly deployed strong chemicals both inside and outside their buildings. Now the district turns to pesticides only occasionally, using the smallest possible amount of the least toxic varieties.

Just before Thanksgiving, exterminators from Truly Nolen, a pest-control company under contract with the district, staunched a trail of ghost ants at Satellite High School with bait made from apple jelly and boric acid. The acid kills the insects without posing a hazard to students, says Dave Filkins, a company manager. Filkins estimates that an adult would have to consume six to eight pounds of boric acid for it to be lethal.

The company also uses a natural pesticide extracted from chrysanthemums, Filkins says. And employees have captured rats using traps laced with peanut butter. Though the company never sprays pesticides inside school buildings, it does apply herbicides twice a year on athletic fields to exterminate mole crickets and chinch bugs.

For the most part, the pest-control industry has supported Florida’s new tactics, in part because companies like Truly Nolen can still sell their expertise to schools. But some national environmental experts and chemical-company representatives say the dangers of pesticides to children have been exaggerated. “It’s one story if they eat rat poison,” says Kenneth Green, director of environmental programs at the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles. “But most children exposed to normal, residual amounts of pesticides that are applied properly won’t show adverse effects.”

Schools, Green argues, can’t structure the world to suit their most sensitive children. “Some kids are allergic to peanuts,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean you ban them.”

Cynthia Boyd, mother of Kimberly, the Cocoa Beach girl who suffered from pesticide exposure at school, disagrees. Boyd lobbied hard for the new pest- control program in Brevard County, and she believes it has made all the difference for her daughter. “Every year, she has gotten healthier,” Boyd says. “I still cry to think that places are using chemicals around precious little babies.”

--Jessica Portner