Fifteen years ago, a young boy in Bloomington, Indiana, was frequently sick with respiratory problems and other ailments. His symptoms appeared suddenly, and were so severe that he visited his doctor monthly and missed many school days.
His mother began to suspect that something in his elementary school classroom was the culprit. School officials discovered that pesticides had been sprayed on the school grounds and inside the boy’s classroom the day before his latest illness.
“His teacher really did not like bugs, so she’d asked specifically for her classroom to be sprayed,” said Jerry Jochim, an environmental technician at the Monroe County Community School Corporation.
The incident prompted the school district in 1997 to become one of the first in the nation to overhaul its pest control program, spraying pesticides only as a last resort. Relying on better housekeeping rather than chemicals, schools there have cut pesticide use by 92 percent and also have saved money and reduced complaints about insects and rodents
Now, many public schools across the United States soon will be following in Monroe County’s footsteps, under a plan unveiled in January by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Under the EPA’s plan, all public schools are encouraged to adopt integrated pest management practices by 2015, which experts calculate will reduce use of pesticides by at least 70 percent. Integrated pest management, or IPM, relies on custodians, teachers and students to manage pests by emptying trash cans daily, keeping floors clean, storing leftover food in sealed containers and minimizing pest entry points.
“There are many practices that a school can adopt that take little or no effort to implement,” according to EPA spokesman Dale Kemery.
The strategy has been successful in pilot schools, which have reduced their pesticide use by around 90 percent, EPA officials said.
The new plan is not a federal mandate, but a set of recommendations for implementing IPM. The plan includes no funding to help schools switch from conventional pest management, and there are no enforcement measures to ensure that schools heed the EPA’s recommendations.
IPM experts, environmental health advocates and many school officials support the plan, though some fear it falls short of protecting children and teachers from pesticides.
“Integrated pest management basically relies on common sense to avoid pest problems,” said Thomas Green of the non-profit IPM Institute of North America, who was involved in drafting the plan. “It can require some start-up investment – installing door sweeps on exterior doors, for example – but those eventually save money because the school can spend less on pesticides.”
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.
Teachers and staff members, particularly young pregnant women, are also exposed to pesticides because they spend significant time in the school environment, Landrigan said.
Many school districts already are cutting pesticide use. Thirty-six states have school pesticide regulations.
In 2000, Massachusetts adopted a law that requires schools and daycare centers to reduce pesticide use, notify the public when pesticides are applied and document all pesticide use for state agencies to review.
The Boston Public Schools system, which has nearly 56,000 students in 143 separate schools, contracts with local exterminators to implement its IPM plan. The schools avoid spraying pesticides whenever possible, said Andy Puleo, a senior engineer with the district. When spraying is needed, a five-day notice is given to students, staff and parents. Exterminators visit the schools when a school staff member reports a pest problem, but they first try to resolve it without chemicals.
“The health and safety of everyone in the building comes first,” said Puleo. The schools have also had fewer pest complaints since adopting the new strategy, he said.
Los Angeles Unified School District, with over 700,000 students, also uses IPM. The district’s policy relies on non-chemical strategies like vacuuming and installing door sweeps, as well as a limited list of approved pesticides, said Ron Hultz, the district’s IPM coordinator.
The policy in Los Angeles schools influenced the California Healthy Schools Act of 2000, which includes voluntary IPM guidelines. The act requires schools to post warnings when chemicals are used and keep records of pesticide applications.
In Monroe County, Indiana, teachers and custodians notify Jochim when they spot a pest problem. Then Jochim, who has served as the district’s pest management expert for the past 10 years, assesses the situation to determine the best method of pest control.
On the rare occasion that any part of the school grounds requires spraying, parents, teachers and others near the school are notified by email, phone or mail, Jochim said. Informing students and teachers before exposure to pesticides has minimized negative health effects like those experienced by the young boy 15 years ago.
Jochim, who travels to help schools in other states implement IPM, believes schools across the country will share Monroe County’s success.
“It’s a change, and people are often fearful of change,” he said. “But more often than not, a little education takes care of it.”
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.