Many schools currently rely on periodic pesticide sprayings, which can be excessive in volume and frequency, to kill ants, roaches and other pests.
"Over 80 percent of schools in America are applying pesticides on a regular basis, whether they have a pest problem or not," Indiana University entomologist Marc Lame, who serves as a consultant for schools around the country, said in a recent report.
Exposure to pesticide residue can trigger asthma attacks in children, scientists say. Many insecticides are nerve poisons, and can cause learning disabilities and neurological disorders. Some disrupt hormones and might lead to reproductive problems later in life.
The EPA’s plan encourages non-chemical approaches – installing door sweeps, using steel wool to plug holes, and setting live traps for mice – but it does allow certain chemicals to be used.
The EPA labels potentially hazardous pesticides with the signal words “Caution,” “Warning” or “Danger” to indicate their relative levels of risk. The plan allows “Caution” chemicals to be used if exposure to students and staff is minimized. For example, bromadiolone, a rat poison, can be stored in tamper-proof boxes, and hydramethylnon, a poisonous bait for ants and roaches, can be used in its non-aerosol gel form. Pesticides with “Warning” or “Danger” labels are not recommended.
“Of course we’re glad to see a move in this direction,” said Stephen Scholl-Buckwald, managing director of the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network, or PAN. “But we think it doesn’t go far enough because the concept of IPM has been diluted by the pesticide industry.”
Kagan Owens, senior project consultant at Beyond Pesticides, an anti-pesticide advocacy group, favors tougher limits on the types of chemicals that can be applied in schools.
“In an IPM program, you never need to use a hazardous, toxic chemical,” she said, noting the EPA’s allowance for “Caution” pesticides. Also, she said, “if you’re having to spray for roaches on a monthly basis, your pest control method is just obviously not working.”
Children are especially vulnerable to pesticides.
“Pound for pound, they eat a lot more food and drink more water, and so they take into their bodies more of any pesticide present in those materials,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, an environmental pediatrician at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
“On top of that, they're biologically more vulnerable to the chemicals. Their organ systems are growing and developing, and those developmental processes are very delicate, very fragile, easily disrupted,” Landrigan said.