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Toxic Turf

Are pesticides polluting our kids' schoolyards?

Who Controls the Pest Controllers?

Children, because of their smaller body mass and developing systems, are more vulnerable to pesticides than adults. The GAO notes that its figures are probably understated since there is still no national system for collecting data on pesticide exposure among schoolchildren.

That's part of the problem, says Lieberman. "What we don't know can indeed hurt us." Marion Moses, M.D., Director of the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco, Calif., notes that at least one commonly used class of pesticides, organophospates, can adversely affect the heart -- and this effect is just the tip of the iceberg. That kind of danger, says Moses, is reason enough to remove these pesticides from schools. The long list of other substances commonly used in and around schools includes chlorpyifos (Dursban), an insecticide that, in large doses, is also a nervous-system poison; synthetic pyrethroids, including cypermethrin, which the EPA lists as a possible carcinogen; and Diazinon, frequently used on lawns, which can trigger nausea, dizziness, headaches, and aching joints, and, in large doses, can act as a nervous-system poison. Some chemicals can do damage with minimal exposure; others require direct or prolonged exposure to cause harm.

It's often difficult to determine that an illness is a direct result of pesticide poisoning, yet many studies link a wide variety of health problems to such exposure. According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP), studies of pesticide harm point to everything from elevated rates of childhood leukemias, soft-tissue sarcomas (aggressive tumors), and brain cancers to childhood asthma and other respiratory problems. In a 1987 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, children whose parents used pesticides in their homes and gardens were seven times more likely to get leukemia.

To address these issues, Lieberman and colleagues Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., have introduced the School Environmental Protection Act (SEPA). That bill would create national guidelines for school pest-management programs. Among other requirements, the bill stipulates that schools look for the least-toxic treatment available for particular problems. According to Joan Clayburgh of Californians for Pesticide Reform, nontoxic pest-control options are currently often overlooked. "People have to ask, Will soap and water or caulking up the cracks work?, before they apply toxic pesticides."

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