Ladies' Home Journal - SPECIAL REPORT
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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'
(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
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