To spray or not to spray? That's the dilemma facing school districts engaged in perennial battles with six-legged classroom intruders and harmful campus weeds. It's also a question state and federal officials are under mounting pressure to answer.
At a time when mosquitoes are carrying the deadly West Nile virus and fleas in Colorado have led to at least one death from bubonic plague - a disease that wiped out one-third of Europe centuries ago - pest eradication has become a high-profile issue.
But growing concern about the potential dangers of exposing children to some ingredients in insecticides and herbicides has spurred a movement to strictly regulate the use of pest-killing chemicals in or near schools. Efforts range from adjustments to local school district policy to proposed federal legislation.
Declaring that "kids should not be exposed to dangerous and toxic materials when they go to school," Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis last month signed the Healthy Schools Act, making the Golden State the fifth state in two years to enact tougher regulations on the use of pesticides in and around school buildings.
The California law recommends school pest control programs that reduce the role of chemical pesticides. Parents will be sent a list detailing what pesticides may be used at their child's school. Parents are also encouraged to register for notification as to when a school is scheduled for treatment.
In all, 31 states have laws addressing the use of weed and insect killers at schools, according to a report released last week by Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (BP/NCAMP)
The anti-pesticides group is funded by membership, publications, and private grants and is based in Washington, D.C. In 1996, the group received a one-year, $40,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline.org.
"The Schooling of State Pesticide Laws - 2000," is an update of a survey released in 1998. The updated document points to the need for federal involvement in an area now left to states and school districts by default, says BP/NCAMP executive director and report co-author Jay Feldman.
"The states are taking action in the absence of federal action. Yes, they're moving in the right direction, but the level of protection is uneven across the states," Feldman said.
A separate BP/NCAMP survey lists 48 pesticides commonly used in the nation's schools. Over-exposure to some, like insecticide Trichlorfon, herbicide 2, 4-D and fungicide Benomyl, may lead to kidney and liver failure, reproductive and birth defects and nerve damage. Benomyl and 19 other chemicals on the list earned "probable" or "possible" human carcinogen ratings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Some states have responded by establishing pesticide buffer zones around schools, which could impact spraying initiatives like those currently underway to combat virus-bearing mosquitoes. In an effort to prevent wind-borne drifting of potentially harmful chemicals, six states Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey and North Carolina limit the use of pesticides within a specified radius of a school building.
But these laws are hardly uniform. Alabama outlaws aerial spraying or dusting within 400 feet of school grounds. Louisiana broadens the circle to 1000 feet but lifts the restriction before and after school hours.
New Jersey's buffer zone provision, by far the most complex, includes a separate set of parameters for gypsy moth chemicals and has different zone measurements for grade schools and high schools.
Other features of state school pesticide legislation include:
Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides holds up Maryland and Massachusetts as regulatory benchmarks. However, the group finds fault with a Bay State law forbidding the use of pesticides in the presence of children, because the law relies on a registry of parents and teachers rather than universal notification before an indoor application.
Defending public health
The absence of school pesticide laws in 19 states points up uncertainty over the relative threats to children posed by chemical pesticides.
A November 1999 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office cited a 1993 study by the National Academy of Sciences that found children more vulnerable than adults to harmful side-effects from chemical pesticides. But the GAO report also noted that data on the amount of pesticides used in the nation's 110,000 public schools and on the number of illnesses caused by pesticides is "limited."
"Any level of exposure can initiate or promote an effect, given the variability of backgrounds in the school environment. All kids deserve protection, not just those who are already exhibiting a respiratory or neurological illness or chronic disease," Feldman said.
But representatives of the $1.5 billion non-agricultural pesticide industry, which makes the herbicides and pesticides used in school applications, say their critics overstate the potential harm of their products to children and underestimate the public health threat of the bugs and weeds they are designed to kill.
"Pesticides are the most efficient and effective means of protecting children's health in schools," said Allen James, president of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE)
James points to a 1997 National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases study that included cockroach allergens among the top causes of childhood asthma. It also mentions food infestations, poison ivy and weed-strewn playgrounds as prevalent threats to students' health and safety.
Federal options and local action
Federal regulations currently require the registration and review of all pesticides produced and distributed in the United States. But key legislation, the 1972 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodendicide Act (FIRA) does not address school applications. The Food Quality Protection Act (FOPA) of 1996 amended relevant sections of FIFRA but simply defines IPM to include chemical agents when necessary.
New school pesticide rules could come through EPA's regulatory mandate. EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner has made promoting children's health and public information key objectives of her tenure in Washington. And earlier this year, EPA secured an agreement with manufacturers for the discontinuation of a pesticide commonly known as Dursban, the most widely used pesticide in the United States.
The School Environment Protection Act (SEPA) proposed by two New Jersey Democrats, Sen. Robert Torricelli and Rep. Rush Holt, puts the issue directly before Congress.
In its current form, SEPA would require schools to implement IPM plans that minimize the use of pesticides and to notify all parents and staff before an application. The bill died in committee early this year, but proponents are mustering for another push when the 107th Congress convenes in January and suggest that the bill would benefit from Democratic gains in either chamber.
James says that while industry representatives see no need for federal legislation, they are working on an alternative to SEPA that would lighten the bill's IPM chemical reduction provisions.
BP/NCAMP counts at least 150 school districts that have voluntarily adopted their own IPM and notification programs. One of these, the Los Angeles Unified School District, received a disheartening review of its costly and inefficient efforts to attack playground weeds without herbicides in an Oct. 5 article in the Wall Street Journal.
But one environmental health official said that the Los Angeles plan, which runs all pesticide decisions past a review team composed of community members and district staff, does not authorize a strict chemical ban and is still in development.
"It's hard to give you an estimate of how well we're doing because we're right in the middle of it," said industrial hygienist Gary Pons.