A Terrifying New Math:
A 1987 National Cancer Institute study found that children exposed to pesticides had a nearly 700 percent increase in leukemia. Other studies show that kids plus pesticides equal significant increases in brain cancer; and that kids plus pesticides equal endocrine disruption, a fancy term meaning their reproductive systems are messed up forever. Even trace amounts of pesticides harm children.
So what do American schools--where kids spend most of their time--do? They use pesticides, over and over. In California, ninety-three percent of schools surveyed used pesticides. A 1997 sampling of Massachusetts schools found that more than eighty percent of the schools used pesticides. A 1993 survey in New York found that eighty-seven percent of responding schools used pesticides.
In Minnesota, no one knows how many of our schools use pesticides. No one is counting. No one is monitoring. No one is warning parents. And with rare exceptions, no one is doing anything to stop it.
That means every time your daughter slides into first, she's likely to slide into dicamba, pendamethalin, and MCPP, all of which cause cancer. Each time your son kicks that soccer ball, he's likely to kick up MCPA, so much like the infamous killer 2, 4-D, that toxicologists lump them together.
When your kids enter the school building, the pesticides are tracked inside, where they linger for years on carpets and often become airborne when spread through heat and air conditioning systems, causing repeated exposures.
Your kids can bring home these poisons on their shoes, spreading them to your carpet. There your baby can crawl on them, breathe them, and absorb residues through her skin.
Clean your carpets and the pesticides become airborne so you and the kids can breathe them in yet again.
You're at risk, too. The math for adults exposed to pesticides shows increases in miscarriages, birth defects, and for people who apply pesticides, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
But children are especially at risk because their systems are immature, their organs are not fully developed, they're closer to the ground, and they're more likely to touch sprayed grass and sprayed objects.
So how can we protect our children? Even if we don't use pesticides on our lawns, we're likely to walk and breathe residues from neighbors who do spray, as studies show pesticides are windborne and can drift up to three miles.
And those little lawn-service signs advising you to keep dogs and children off treated areas for twenty-four hours offer no protection. The Council on Hazardous Materials says treated areas are unsafe for ten days. Some studies show pesticides with a half-life of up to a year.
The EPA doesn't protect us. In fact, the EPA has stated that "Pesticides are not 'safe'"; and the term "EPA Registered" simply means the chemical in question kills.
Lawn services are unlikely to offer much protection. In a 1986 report, the United States General Accounting Office concluded that "the general public received limited and misleading information on pesticide hazards." The GAO also found that commercial lawn applicators continue to make claims that their products are safe or nontoxic.
It is a violation of federal law to state that the use of pesticides is safe when used as directed.
Still, through some twist in our thinking, pesticides aren't a problem. Dandelions are. In fact, it's dandelions that drove several metro school districts to use pesticides.
Jeff Prescher, Health and Safety Coordinator for the Hopkins Schools, says the Hopkins school board made the decision to spray after schoolyard neighbors complained about dandelions.
After the Eden Prairie Schools skipped a year of spraying, school administrators got calls from community members concerned about weeds and dandelions in schoolyards. The district now sprays twice a year.
Some Minneapolis schools are sprayed, inside and out. Mike Meyer, Manager of Facilities and Operations for the Minneapolis Schools, says the district gets complaints and calls from neighbors about dandelions blowing into their yards. "Our schools are the showplace of the neighborhood," says Meyer. "We try to keep up with the neighbors."
Dandelions don't cause leukemia, cancer, or endocrine disruption. Pesticides do, but our school districts use them, at our expense.
The National PTA has taken a stand against pesticides in schools, as has the Attorney General of New York State. Here in Minnesota, the Edina school system has.
In 1995, as part of a citywide initiative, the Edina School District ceased spraying school property. "It's better for the students not to use it," according to Laura Teeting Nelson, Communications Director for the district.
In response to citizen concerns, the city of Edina developed a Turf Management Plan based on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) principles, which require less use of pesticides. As a result, the City of Edina has been able to significantly reduce and in many cases eliminate spraying.
And the Edina Schools have eliminated spraying entirely. Teeting Nelson says, "Our district keeps going back to what's best for kids." A secondary benefit of Edina's no-spray practice, Teeting Nelson adds, is cost savings.
Duluth is home to an innovative pollution prevention program called the Green Thumb Project. The program, which receives support from the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, demonstrates alternative lawn management practices to homeowners and institutions including several schools.
What can you do? Move to Edina, or call your school today, find out if they spray, and tell them to stop. Let them know there's a complete "IPM How-To Manual for Schools" available from the Bio-Integral Resource Center (BIRC). Call your park system. Call your city. Talk to your neighbors.
And learn to live with dandelions, so that our children can live and learn.
Susan Berkson is a Minnetonka freelance writer and columnist whose work has appeared in many publications, including the Star Tribune and the Women's Press. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.
Suggested Steps for Parents
(courtesy of Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet)
1. Ask your school district if a pest management policy is in place. Find out if it limits or bans the use of pesticides and includes notification of pesticide applications. If not, consider campaigning for a policy based on IPM.
2. Create a coalition with other parents. When parents are involved, they really drive the process.
3. Do your homework. Find out what the pest problems are in your school and how they are treated. Research the health impact of the pesticides used. Seek least-toxic solutions to these pest problems and determine approximate costs.
4. Determine what you want in a policy. Decide whether you want a complete ban on pesticides or a policy which allows for one-time spraying on a case-by-case basis. Address both indoor and outdoor pest control. If you feel the school district may be averse to an IPM program, suggest a test project.
5. Meet with school staff. Present your information without being confrontational. Speak with groundskeepers and maintenance staff as well as the administrators and teachers. Learn their point of view.
6. Develop a policy and action program. Get them in writing. Remember, staff and administrators will come and go, and you want a long-term commitment. Include input from the maintenance staff, who will be implementing the policy. Request funding for training and include provisions for parental notification if pesticides must be applied. Suggest hiring an IPM coordinator to ensure that the policy is followed, and create an oversight committee consisting of parents, school staff, and members of the community.
Resources for Parents and Schools
IPM for Schools: A How-To Manual is available for $45 plus $5 postage from BIRC
PO Box 7414
Berkeley, CA 94707
The Green Thumb Project
394 Lake Avenue South, Suite 308
Duluth, MN 55802
Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides
P.O. Box 1393
Eugene, OR 97440
NCAP publications include "Getting Pesticides Out of Our Schools," ($5 ppd). Their Web site includes a model pest-management policy for schools, the "Safer School Pest Control Pledge," "School Pesticide Use Questionnaire," and "Steps Parents and Teachers can Take to Reduce School Pesticide Use."
Children's Environmental Health Network
5900 Hollis Street, Suite E
Emeryville, CA 94608
(510) 450-3818, x117
CEHN has a wide variety of information on the effects of toxic chemicals on children. The organization recently published the first national resource guide on children and environmental health.
Pesticide Watch Education Fund
450 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Pesticide Watch works with individuals and groups to assist in local efforts to reduce pesticide use. They have prepared several organizing kits including "Reducing Pesticide Use in Schools," and "Parks are for People, Not Poisons."
Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet
40 W. 20th Street
New York, NY 10011--4211
Mothers & Others publishes "The Green Guide" newsletter on issues like pesticides in schools.
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