Ladies' Home Journal - SPECIAL REPORT

Danger in the Schoolyard

Studies show that pesticides can harm children’s health.  Yet across the country, kids are being exposed to high levels of dangerous chemicals at school.  

By Carol Lynn Mithers

When Robina Suwol, forty, dropped off her sons at Sherman Oaks Elementary School, in Los Angeles, on March 30, 1998, she noticed a man spraying something along the side of the building.  He must be cleaning, she thought absently as she opened the car door for Banden, then ten, and Nicholas, then six.  As the boys got out, mist from the spray wet their heads and faces.  “Yuck!” said Nicholas, “This tastes terrible!”

“What tastes terrible?” wondered Suwol, but with a line of impatient parents behind her at the curb, there was no time to find out.  The more she thought about what had happened, however, the more anxious she became.  The man had been wearing a hazardous-materials suit.  If what he was spraying was so dangerous that he needed protection, why was it being used around kids?  She called the school office, and was directed to the L.A. Unified School District’s maintenance department.  “What are you spraying at Sherman elementary today?” she asked the man who answered the phone.

Why do you want to know?” he replied.

Suwol thought quickly, “The grounds look beautiful,” she said, “And I have the same foliage in my yard.”  The ruse worked.  Armed with the name of an herbicide she got on the Internet.  What she found there horrified her.  According to a Web site run by Cornell University’s Pest Management Education Program, a single exposure to Princep, the chemical that had landed on her sons, could cause “tremors, convulsions, paralysis, slowed respiration, gut pain and diarrhea.”  That night, Nicholas, an asthmatic whose disease was usually under control, suffered a severe attack.

When Suwol discovered from the local environmental groups that the spraying at her children’s school was part of the regular maintenance program, she was determined to take action.  She helped create a coalition that included parents, environmentalists, physicians, teachers and health and policy experts committed to pesticide reform.

Like Suwol, most parents understand that pesticides are part of modern life, that many are hazardous, and that it’s important to protect children from them.  What most of us don’t know is that while we’re being so careful to avoid dangerous chemicals at home, our children may be exposed to high levels of them every day at school.  In 1998, in a survey of forty-six state school districts, the California Public Interest Research Group found that 87 percent had used at least one of the twenty-seven pesticides that health agencies believe can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, hormone disruption and neurological problems.  In a 1993 survey, nearly 90 percent of New York schools reported administering pesticides; similar levels of use were found in Connecticut and Maryland.  And a 1997 study of eighteen Massachusetts schools found that over 80 percent used pesticides monthly.

Even more frightening is a 1999 U.S. General Accounting office report on school pesticide use that revealed 2,300 instances from 1993 to 1996 in which children had been affected by pesticide exposure at schools.  In over 300 cases, medical care, sometimes including hospitalization, was necessary.

But now mothers like Robin Suwol are fighting back.  Across the nation, an increasing number are confronting schools, districts and state legislatures with one demand:  Make the spraying stop.


Of course, schools are treated with pesticides for perfectly good reasons – to keep classrooms, cafeterias and gyms free of insects and rodents, and grounds and playing fields lush and weed-free.  But this practice may have severe health consequences for children.  “Two of the most popular classes of insecticides in use today, organophosphates and carbamates, are intended to poison the nervous systems of insects,” notes Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., M.Sc., a pediatrician and chair of the department of community and preventive medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City.  Commercial pesticides also contain a number of inert ingredients – chemicals used to dissolve, preserve or apply those that do the pest-killing.  A 1991 report on pesticide use prepared for the New York State attorney general found that inerts “include some of the most dangerous substances known.”

According to manufacturers and pest-control operators, pesticides that are used according to directions and handled by licensed applicators are quite safe, “These products undergo one hundred twenty very precise tests that are required by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] before they can be placed on the market,” says Allen James, executive director of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment  (RISE), a trade association in Washington, D.C. that represents the pesticide industry.  “We do not support the use of pesticides in [classrooms] that children are occupying.  But when pesticides are used at night or on the weekends, by the time students return, residue levels are either nonexistent or so low as to be insignificant.”

But many scientists disagree.  The residues from pesticides may vanish quickly outside, but things are different indoors, says Gina Solomon, M.D. senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of Generations at Risk (MID Press, 1999).  Interior residues of chlorpyrifos (widely used to combat ants, fleas, cockroaches and termites) may linger for over four months, she says, “And while the herbicide 2,4-D, which is commonly used on athletic fields, doesn’t last long outside, it gets onto shoes and has been documented in houses months after the original exposure.”  (A study by the EPA in the late eighties found that indoor levels of pesticides were generally 10 to 100 times higher than those outdoors.)

Commercially sold pesticides are subject to extensive testing, acknowledges Solomon.  The problem, she says, is that the tests measure only how the chemicals will affects adults.  And it’s children, adds Philip Landrigan, who “are far more vulnerable to their effects. Pound for pound of body weight, they drink more water, eat more food and breathe more air than adults do.  Their organs, which are still in development, are more susceptible to disruption.  Their bodies are less able to break down and excrete toxins.”

Substantial research links pesticides to numerous health risks.  A study in the American Journal of Public health found evidence to suggest that the use of yard treatments and pest strips at home might be associated with childhood development of some cancers.  And as pesticide use has grown in the U.S. – to around 1.2 billion pounds in 1995 – so has the incidence of asthma and childhood cancers, especially leukemia and brain tumors.

“A number of studies show that low-level exposure to organophosphate pesticides is associated with poor neurodevelopment and slower growth in developing animals,” says Brenda Eskenazi, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and maternal and child health, and director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health Research at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Given this evidence, concluded Landrigan, “I believe there’s a strong possibility that chronic exposure also affects children’s nervous systems causing permanent damage, including loss of intelligence and alteration of normal behavior.  Minimizing exposure is simply a prudent course of action.”


Chemicals can be especially dangerous in schools because they are not always used properly and safely.  In 1989, a Charlestown, West Virginia, school was inspected after four years of complaints by students and teachers of fatigue, headaches, respiratory problems, nausea and numbness.  The building was found to be contaminated with chlordane, a chemical used to treat termites that had been banned by the EPA the year before.  Around the same time, a first-grader in Yakima, Washington, nearly died after eating something that looked like sand under a tree on school grounds.  It was actually a highly toxic pesticide applied to control aphids on the school’s maple trees.  (Fortunately, the boy recovered.)  In 1992, a company renovating an elementary school in San Francisco sprayed a germicide not approved by state law during school hours.  in November 1998, a termite exterminator sprayed pesticide inside rather than under a Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, middle-school building, leaving the carpets, walls and desks soaked.

“Kids started getting headaches and [experiencing] dizziness,” says Debbie Riddick, forty-seven, of Mt. Pleasant, whose daughter was in the class, though absent that day.  “About ten weeks later, one of my daughter’s friends told me about a day when there’d been terrible-smelling stuff in the classroom and hallway.  My daughter had been complaining of headaches constantly, and I realized what had happened.  When I brought this to the principal’s attention, he immediately had the room tested, and high levels of pesticide were found.  Finally, the carpet was pulled up, the heating-duct air filters changed and the floors and walls sealed with polyurethane.”

Lack of parental notification is all too common.  A 1993 survey in New York found that only 3 percent of the state’s school districts that sprayed pesticides notified parents before they did so; in Massachusetts only 15 percent of the districts did.

Confronted with these problems, parents are taking matters into their own hands.  In 1993 Ruth-Berlin, fifty-one, an Annapolis, Maryland, psychotherapist, formed a group to urge schools to reduce pesticide spraying and to notify parents when they did spray.  Her son, Jesse, had suffered health problems his doctors had diagnosed as an allergic reaction to pesticides.  “When something hits you personally, you start moving,” she says.

Ultimately, Berlin’s coalition helped to get two bills passed limiting the use of pesticides on school property to times “when reasonable nontoxic options had been exhausted,” and requiring that parents and staff are notified before any application and about any potential health effects.


The pesticide industry warns that a radical decrease of pest-control products has its own risks.  “It means children will be exposed to problem weeds such as poison ivy, to which some of them are allergic,” says Allen James of RISE.  “We’re also very concerned about pests that spread serious diseases.

Pesticide opponents say there’s a good alternative.  Known as “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM), it deals with problems the old-fashioned way; ridding lawns of weeds by mowing or pulling them up; and controlling vermin by keeping food areas clean, removing trash, repairing holes and caulking crevices.  If such prevention doesn’t work, pests are eliminated with traps, predatory insects or innocuous chemical compounds, such as boric acid powder. If all else fails and a problem is severe enough, pesticides can be used with strict controls.

Even its most fervent advocates admit that IPM requires a great deal of work.  But in schools where it has been used properly, it seems to be effective.  For instance, since the Monroe County Community School Corporation, in Bloomington, Indiana, implemented an IPM program in the early 1990s, pest-control costs have decreased by 35 percent, and use of pesticides by 90 percent.  And the University of California Berkeley, which has the oldest IPM program in the country, has cut its use of pesticides by more than 90 percent while improving the control of bugs.

The concept of making schools pesticide-free is catching on.  The national PTA has declared its support for efforts “to eliminate the environmental health hazards caused by pesticide use in and around schools,” and the EPA is actively encouraging schools to stop using the chemicals.  Six states and some of the nation’s largest cities, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, have adopted formal policies favoring IPM.  And a year after Robin Suwol first looked up “Princep” on the Internet, her coalition succeeded in getting the L.A. Unified School District to adopt one of the nation’s most stringent plans for phasing out the use of dangerous pesticides and herbicides.

But the bigger struggle is just beginning.  Many states don’t regulate school pesticides use at all, and in those that do, rules vary greatly.  Last October, Senator Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey) introduced the School Environmental Protection Act.  Co-sponsored by Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington), the legislation would bar schools from using chemicals that the EPA has determined cause cancer, birth defects, neurological and immune system effects and reproductive and endocrine system dysfunctions.  It is far from certain that the bill will pass; even if it does, it’s just a start.  Neither the proposed legislation nor laws already in effect cover private or parochial schools and day-car centers, all of which are routinely sprayed.

In the meantime, activists urge parents to educate themselves about the issue.  “Find out if pesticides are being used at your neighborhood school.” Urges Suwol.  “There are a lot of things we can’t do anything about.  But when there’s something we can do, we’re obligated to act.

Carol Lynn Mithers is a contributing editor to Ladies’ Home Journal.

Reprint from May, 2000 Ladies' Home Journal

(Note:  Ladies' Home Journal consistently prints stories that many other news organizations don't or won't.  We thank them for taking the lead in providing information crucial to the health and well being of its readers.)

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