Toxic Turf

Are pesticides polluting our kids' schoolyards?

4 min read

March 6, 2000 (Berkeley, Calif.) -- With the coming of spring, children are venturing outdoors again -- for soccer games, track and field events, and lunches on the schoolyard grass. But according to a trio of U.S. senators, those playing fields and lawns may not be good places for kids. Each year schools spray any number of different herbicides and pesticides on their grounds to control pests of all kinds, from yellow jackets to ants. But no one is paying enough attention to the harmful effects that such chemicals may have on the nation's schoolchildren, says Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of the concerned legislators.

Like public areas anywhere, classrooms and playgrounds are inviting places for pests and annoyances: weeds, fleas, mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches, ants, wasps, mold and mildew, bacteria, rodents, and more. So, not surprisingly, schools use a variety of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodent baits, disinfectants, wood preservatives, soil sterilants, and other chemicals to control these perceived threats. Although some schools have set their own standards, there is currently no overarching authority regulating what substances are used around school children, and this realization has caused mounting concern among parents, environmentalists, and government officials.

Lieberman is a sponsor of a U.S. Senate bill (H.R. 3275) to make school districts accountable for the pesticides and herbicides they use in and around schools. Workplaces have far stricter standards, he says, than do our schools, and he is also urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step up surveys of what's used in and around the places where children spend most of their days.

According to a report released just over a month ago by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), "Use, Effects, and Alternatives to Pesticides in Schools," most states have no procedures for tracking or regulating pest-control procedures in schools (see link to GAO report). And in the past few years there have been sufficient numbers of children exposed to pesticides on school grounds to warrant concern. The GAO has tracked more than 2,000 instances of pesticide exposure in schools during a three-year period -- including more than a dozen cases that required hospitalization.

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."

Another significant requirement of the bill is a mandatory 72-hour notice to all parents and school staff prior to pesticide use. Notification would include the name of the pesticide used, any potential adverse effects, and information on where and why it is being applied. Parents would have the option of keeping their children away from areas where herbicides or pesticides were being applied.

The bill, co-written by Kagan Owens of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, is currently in the Committee on Agriculture, awaiting action by the U.S. House of Representatives. Its passage would be a step in the right direction, says Owens. "Unfortunately, we don't have an activist in every corner of the country to fight tooth and nail for the safety of children. We need to establish some federal laws so that every child is protected, whether they live in a so-called progressive place or not."