Many kids have a fascination with bugs, and as parents, we just hope and pray that this fascination doesn't extend to eating the bugs. At school, kids may learn about insects, but we certainly don't want our little learners sharing the classroom with little insects, no matter how much the Society of Brainy Bug Lovers may think the bugs deserve an education too.
To keep pests out of classrooms, most schools use chemical pesticides. We've grown to accept this as simply a fact of life, but is that smart? Are pesticides in schools really safe? Could we be using pesticides in schools in a safer manner?
The first item for consideration is the effect that pesticides have on children. The level of potential harm should guide our level of concern that our schools may be using too many pesticides.
Kids are more susceptible than adults to pesticides (and other chemicals) because their bodily systems are still developing. Researchers are discovering that a wide variety of chemicals can have a disruptive effect on their neurological, respiratory, immune, and endocrine systems, even at relatively low dosage levels. Studies have also linked pesticide exposure to neurological problems in kids such as difficulty concentrating and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in kids, as well as Parkinson's disease later in life.
EVERYWHERE A SIGN
So you're sure that YOUR kids don't have any of the signs of pesticide-exposure problems? Not so fast. Symptoms of pesticide exposure are similar to and may be confused with more common ailments such as respiratory distress and flu-like symptoms.
Children also typically get more pesticide exposure when compared to adults:
- kids eat more food per kilogram of body weight than adults; thus, meals give kids a higher dosage of pesticides than adults;
- children, at least the young ones, tend to spend more time on and near floors and lawns, where pesticides are more prevalent.
Childhood cancer is continuing to increase at the alarming rate of 1% per year and is now the leading cause of childhood death from disease. Nearly 5 million children in the United States under the age of 18 have asthma, making asthma the most common chronic illness in children. These two problems cannot be tied solely to pesticides, but numerous scientific studies have linked cancer and asthma to pesticide exposure.
You may already avoid using pesticides around your house, lawn, and garden, and you may be doing your best to reduce your children's pesticide exposure at mealtime by giving them organic food as often as possible. But what do you know about your kids' pesticide exposure at school?
If we accept that we'd rather not have pesticides being used in schools but we also know we don't want our kids being surrounded by bugs, what do we do?
The solution is called Integrated Pest Management (IMP). Here's an overview of how IPM works.
- Site inspections are used to determine whether there is a pest problem that needs to be addressed or whether there are building maintenance or operations issues that need to be improved to reduce the likelihood of an infestation in the future. An example of corrective action is sealing up cracks and other openings that can be used by pests to move around the school.
- If a pest appears, it is identified and its numbers are monitored. The latter information determines whether the pest sighting indicates an actual problem (e.g. a few ants are not a problem; a few thousand ants ARE).
- If it's determined that there is indeed a pest problem, the initial steps to address it might include:
- Using a special pest vacuum to get rid of the visible insects.
- Determining how the pests are gaining access to the building—as well as what is attracting them—and trying to repair and eliminate these factors.
- Using non-toxic or low-toxicity pest control methods such as baits, traps, boric acid, diatomaceous earth, and biological controls.
- If the methods in step 3 fail to control the problem, then stronger chemical pesticides might be used. Even then, the pest-control specialist would start with the least-toxic pesticide appropriate for the pest and only use more toxic pesticides if the pest-control agents from the lower tiers fail.
So, you can see that we proceed in stepwise fashion through prevention and least-toxic approaches, only bringing out the toxic heavy artillery when absolutely necessary. That's a much better strategy than bombarding classrooms and cafeterias (and, hence, kids) every month with a preventative spraying of harsh pesticides.
IPM usually costs less than traditional spray-every-month approaches, at least over the long run, and that's good news for cash-strapped school systems. It's also good news for parents interested in trying to convince their local school or school board to move to IPM.
EPA IS PRO-IPM
IPM in schools is not just something we anti-pesticide types at Grinning Planet think is a good idea—the US Environmental Protection Agency recommends that schools adopt IPM practices.
Changing a school's approach to pest management will require patience and perseverance. School administrators often look at the situation as, "We spray regularly; we don't have pests; so we don't have a problem!" Or it may be that they are just uninformed about their school's policy or that there are healthier alternatives.
The non-profit group Beyond Pesticides recommends the following:
- Identify the school's pest management policy.
- Educate yourself and evaluate the program.
- Organize the school community.
- Work with school decision-makers.
- After your IPM program gets set up, become a watchdog.
That may sound a little daunting at first, but if you can get a few other parents to help, it's certainly doable. For more details on each of the five steps, check out page 2 of Beyond Pesticides' PDF file
Back To School Organizing for Safer Pest Management.
You can also check out their home page for Children and Schools
or see a list of publications relevant to pesticides in schools.
There is also a US EPA web site for IPM in schools.
For information on IPM and pesticides in countries other than the US, the Pesticide Action Network
should be able to direct you to a partner organization in your country or region.