NEWS- Pesticide poison: Area schools behind the times in pest control
There's no question that certain health ailments have soared in frequency over the past decade. The incidence of asthma, allergies, and autism are at an all-time high in children, according to numerous medical studies, and many doctors are pointing to the link between chemical pesticides and such health problems.
Nationally, some states have banned the use of pesticides in schools, and in Virginia– at the urging of the Virginia Department of Education and the Department of Environmental Quality– nearly two dozen school systems have adopted "integrated pest management" plans, in which pesticides are used only as a last resort.
Two school systems are noticeably missing from that list, however, and environmental advocates are bugging them to change that.
"Our kids are really sick today," says Jackie Lombardo, who's affiliated with both the advocacy nonprofit Friend and Advocates for Children, Teachers and Schools as well as the Piedmont branch of the Sierra Club. Lombardo cites the monthly scheduled applications of pesticides at Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools as troubling, given evidence of the dangers such exposures pose. "We need to stop doing this," she says.
All three chemicals commonly applied in local schools are ranked toxic on the pollutant information website scorecard.org: Suspend SC is a neurotoxin; Siege Gel affects the reproductive system and might cause cancer; and a third– the roach killer Maxforce– also affects the reproductive system and is a developmental toxicant, affecting prenatal development.
Dr. Eric Rydland, a local pediatrician who specializes in the holistic treatment of ADHD and autism, says children are far more susceptible to chemical exposure than adults because they are growing and their bodies more readily absorb toxicants.
Most of the chemicals used in pesticides are fat soluble, he says, so when a child is exposed, the chemical is stored in fatty tissue– including the brain– rather than processed and expelled. Repeated exposure can lead to a build-up, so even if there is no immediate adverse effect in the child, health could be impaired later in life.
"The main thing we're seeing in children is an ever increasing rate of neurologic problems," says Rydland. The incidence of ADHD, he says, has reached 9 or 10 percent of children, while autism, often cited as affecting 1 in 166 children, may now be even more frequent: 1 in 70, particularly in boys, he says.
Despite such fearsome statistics, is it really fair to blame everything on pesticides? Other scientific studies have blamed the increase in health disorders on things such as mercury-laced vaccines and widespread use of plastics.
According to Intrastate Pest Control, the Charlottesville company contracted to apply pesticides in the local schools, the chemicals are not placed in areas where children can easily come in contact with them.
"We do some crack and crevice treatment in kitchen areas," says Intrastate's Greg Wells, noting that sprays are avoided and no pesticides are used in classrooms unless a specific infestation exists that requires treatment.
Wells says even though the school systems are not officially using an integrated pest management approach, Intrastate often does not apply pesticides at its monthly visits, but rather just inspects the sites for signs of problems.
Even using chemicals sparingly may not be enough of a precaution to protect children entirely, according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That study suggests pesticide poisoning in schools happens even when best practices are followed.
The study analyzed 2,593 reported pesticide poisonings in schools and childcare centers between 1998 and 2002, and reported disturbing trends: the incidence of poisonings increased significantly from 1998 to 2002; almost a third of the poisonings resulted from drifting chemicals from off-site applications; and the chemicals used to clean work areas and kill insects were the most frequent source of poisonings.
The study concluded that its findings "should be considered low estimates of the magnitude of the problem because many cases of pesticide poisoning are likely not reported to surveillance systems and poison control centers."
One local school that has taken such warnings to heart is the Charlottesville Waldorf School.
According to Waldorf administrator Alice Gore, the school typically does not use chemicals for pest or weed prevention. But even the self-dubbed "greenest school in America" can't claim to be entirely chemical free.
"We had a headlice infestation, and we had to spray a little bit to get rid of them," she says. "It's not a routine thing."
At a small private school like Waldorf, staying pesticide-free may be simpler than in a large public school system, but that hasn't stopped other cities from pushing for an "integrated pest management plan."
Lynchburg city schools have stopped regular pesticide application over the past several years, and facilities director Don Floyd reports "It's going well." Still, he says, it's not easy. "It takes everybody in the school system to do this, because it all relies on identification of what's going on, being proactive, taking appropriate measures. We try to use a lot of noninvasive measures and move up the ladder if necessary."
Despite the monthly pesticide applications in Charlottesville and Albemarle schools this year, it seems Albemarle County will soon achieve "integrated pest management" status. According to Lindsay Check, environmental compliance manager for the county schools, Albemarle has, in fact, already converted Agnor Hurt Elementary to an integrated model and is planning to switch one school every two weeks.
Last week, Intrastate and the county co-sponsored a day-long training seminar in integrated pest management. Albemarle sent dozens of cafeteria and sanitation staffers, says Check, who hopes all 26 county schools will have transitioned by the end of the year.
Charlottesville City schools may take a bit longer. According to spokesperson Cass Cannon, the city sent several of its facilities managers to the county's training seminar and is considering the pros and cons of the switch.
Wells acknowledges that integrated pest management is more expensive than traditional preventive spraying because the inspections and record keeping are labor intensive, but he doubts that will affect the city's decision.
"We haven't gotten any feel from city or county that cost would make their decision," he says.