Florida Schools Are Cleaning Up in Effort To Cut Pesticide Usage

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Cockroaches may make most people's skin crawl, but it's the pesticides many schools use to kill them that Kimberly Boyd wants to avoid.

The 16-year-old student says she developed such debilitating health problems from pesticide exposure during elementary school that she had to give up outdoor sports and attend classes in a special wing of the school.

Now a high school junior, Ms. Boyd says she can breathe easier since school leaders in this coastal town adopted a program three years ago to curtail the use of pesticides in schools.

"Before, if you said bug spray made you sick, people thought you were psycho," said Ms. Boyd, whose has been diagnosed with multiple-chemical-sensitivity disorder. "Now people are more open-minded about it."

Broadening educators' perspectives about pest control is exactly what Florida education officials had in mind when they joined forces with university entomologists to reduce the need for pesticides through sanitation improvements.

Eighty-five percent of districts in this bug-rich state already have signed on to the voluntary program-- Integrated Pest Management--partly to avoid potential lawsuits.

"Pesticides are a useful tool, but every time we use one, we take a risk that we could have a misapplication or accidental poisoning," said Eric Althouse, the environmental coordinator for the state education department. Mr. Althouse estimates that IPM reduces the risk of pesticide exposure for 1 million Florida schoolchildren each year while keeping the pest problem under control.

Some critics of alternative pest-control methods say the health hazards of pesticides are overblown. But Louisiana, Michigan, Texas, and West Virginia have all adopted laws or regulations in the past decade to reduce pesticide use in schools.

Experts estimate that thousands of individual districts nationwide have traded in their spray cans for vacuums.

Clean and Tidy

Administrators here in the Brevard County district are trying to prevent infestations the old-fashioned way--by tidying up.

"I say if you smell a musky odor, your kitchen isn't clean," Katy Elkin, the manager of Andersen Elementary School's kitchen, said during lunch preparations one day last month. Though her shift ends at 2:15 p.m., Ms. Elkin often stays until 6 o'clock, scrubbing the floor drains, picking up crumbs from the tile floor, and cleaning and shining the metal pots big enough to prepare soup for the school's 600 children.

"You have stay on top of this, or you have bugs," Ms. Elkin said. "Grease is what they love."

At nearby Spacecoast Middle School, head custodian Andy Steinert boasts that his janitorial crew can make the cafeteria sparkle 30 minutes after the school's 1,150 students finish lunch. After the last student leaves, workers wipe each table with a low-toxicity disinfectant, cart the trash to the outside dumpster, fold the tables, and polish the floors.

"If we didn't clean, we'd be overrun with roaches and centipedes," Mr. Steinert said. "Every bug in Florida would move in quick."

Eliminating pests, many of which can cause health problems in children, is daunting in Florida's hot and humid climate. Cockroaches and their droppings provoke asthma, rats can carry viruses, and some spiders can be deadly. Last year, three children died in Florida after being bitten by fire ants.

Another way the district is able to keep a lid on the pest problem is to eliminate the food and water they seek out by asking school employees to keep snacks in air-tight containers.

Larry Graves, the principal at Spacecoast, has even imposed dining restrictions on his staff. Under his school's food policy, employees are prohibited from eating anywhere but in the cafeteria or in one other designated room; coffee and soft drinks are not allowed in classrooms. "We aren't doing it to be punitive," Mr. Graves said, adding that keeping food contained in certain areas is for students' protection.

The health effects of pesticides warrant such inconveniences, according to Richard E. Smith, the 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 said.

Spraying Less

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says studies have shown that exposures to pesticides such as organophosphates--still used in many schools nationwide--have been associated with cancers, nervous-system dysfunction, seizures, and birth defects. Though the effects vary depending on the toxicity level of the pesticide and the length of exposure, children are more apt to be sensitive to pesticides than adults because a smaller amount of any given substance will have an impact, according to the EPA.

Before adopting the IPM approach, the Brevard County schools used strong chemicals on school grounds and inside some buildings. Now the district uses the least-toxic pesticide in the smallest amount necessary to eradicate pests, Mr. Smith said.

On a recent day in the physics lab at Satellite High School here, two exterminators from a local pest-control company trained their flashlights on a trail of ghost ants entering the classroom through a space in the window frame. The bait made from apple jelly and boric acid would soon kill the insects without posing a hazard to students.

Dave Filkins, a manager at the Truly Nolen pest-control company, estimates that an adult would have to consume six to eight pounds of boric acid for it to be lethal. Sometimes, the company, which contracts with the district for pest control, uses a natural pesticide extracted from chrysanthemums. And the workers have captured rats in a school by using traps laced with peanut butter instead of poison.

While company workers never spray pesticides inside school buildings, herbicides are applied twice a year on athletic fields to exterminate hard-to-kill mole crickets and chinch bugs.

The district policy has been a godsend for Cynthia Boyd, who said the IPM program that she lobbied for has allowed Kimberly, her daughter, to function better in school. "Every year, she has gotten healthier," she said. "Before she could barely function.

"I still cry to think that places are using chemicals around precious little babies."

Bug Research

For the most part, the pest-control industry has supported the effort in Florida, in part because the companies can still sell their expertise to schools. But some national environmental experts and chemical companies say the dangers of pesticides to children are exaggerated.

"It's one story if they eat rat poison," said Kenneth Green, the director of the environmental program at the Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles think tank that advocates a free-market approach to policy issues. "But most children exposed to normal, residual amounts of pesticides which are applied properly won't show adverse effects from casual exposure."

He added that schools can't structure the world to suit the most sensitive child in every case. "Some kids are allergic to peanuts, but that doesn't mean you ban them," he said.

The Clinton administration announced this year that it would fund more research into how pesticides affect children.

But Phil Koehler, a professor of entomology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, doesn't need convincing. A key player in the state's IPM program, Mr. Koehler is always looking for ways to build a better, pesticide-free bug trap.

Last month, standing in a laboratory lined with jars of cockroaches, the professor explained one ongoing experiment: Cockroach feces are used to lure the insects to a trap containing a low-toxicity pesticide.

Another of his department's experiments involves killing cockroaches by heating their hiding places until they die, then vacuuming up their remains. A yet-to-be manufactured tubular device that blasts 110-degree air into a piece of furniture, for example, would devastate an infestation in four hours, Mr. Koehler estimates.

While such a heat-treatment system ultimately may be too cumbersome or expensive for schools to use, Mr. Koehler says the idea has Integrated Pest Management potential. "When you think about it, what is safer than air?"

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Florida Schools Are Cleaning Up in Effort To Cut Pesticide Usage
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