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The Plain Dealer
HEALTH

A chemical reaction for local schools

Monday, February 07, 2005
Fran Henry
Plain Dealer Reporter

It was just a mistake that day in May 2003 when an exterminator sprayed weedkiller around Madison Middle School.

But the fresh spring air pouring into the sixth- and seventh-grade classroom windows became tainted with the acrid smell of Formula 190, sending one teacher home and 42 nauseated and dizzy children to the hospital.

A mistake, but not an anomaly.

Between 1998 and 2002, 2,096 individuals, including 1,425 children, were sickened in U.S. schools from exposure to pesticides, according to a report presented at the 2004 American Public Health Association's annual meeting.

No federal restrictions govern the use of toxic chemicals in and around schools, and a School Environmental Protection Act, introduced in 1999, failed to pass Congress, leaving caution in the hands of the states.

In Ohio, the law only requires commercial applicators to post signs when a lawn pesticide - an herbicide, insecticide or fungicide - has been applied.

In an effort to make Ohio schools safer district by district, all Northeast Ohio school districts - including 100 public systems and 150 private and parochial schools - have been invited to learn about safer approaches to pesticide use.

The presentation will be at Beachwood High School from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday. A presentation geared to parents and teachers is from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday. They are sponsored by Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit agency; the Cleveland-based Ohio Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides; and the George Gund Foundation.

Pesticides present a greater danger to children than adults quite simply because children are smaller.

They breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, creating greater lung exposure to fumes and vapors. They're small, so pesticides are at a higher concentration when absorbed. And they're short and closer to the ground, where pesticides concentrate - because pesticide fumes are heavier than air,

Brains and nervous systems of children are particularly vulnerable because developing cells are less able to repair damage caused by environmental toxins. Consequently, if a child's brain cells are damaged by toxic chemical exposure, it likely is irreversible. Exposure has been associated with mental retardation, motor disabilities, behavioral disorders, learning impairment or delayed motor development.

A growing body of evidence also links pesticide exposure with asthma attacks and the development of asthma disorders, as well as leukemia, lymphoma and brain cancer.

Since children spend a great deal of time at school, decreasing their exposure to pesticides there would go a long way to decreasing their cumulative exposure, said Jay Feldman, founder and director of Beyond Pesticides.

Parents assume that schools are safe places, but this is not necessarily a safe assumption, he said.

Under the 1972 amendments to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the EPA was required to reassess all pesticides according to modern safety standards. The agency had reassessed none by 1988, and by 1999, only 31 pesticides had been both reassessed and re-registered as acceptable, leaving about 20,000 products to go. The reassessment is not expected to be completed until 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Twenty-four states address the indoor use of pesticides in the schools, and only one, Massachusetts, prohibits their use in and around schools. Some Ohio school systems, including Beachwood and South Euclid, have adopted practices that reflect concern about children's exposure to toxic substances, Feldman said, but most have not.

Most Ohio school systems, 72 percent, don't know about nontoxic pest management, according to a 2001 Denison University survey. The survey also found that Ohio schools use very toxic chemicals to control mere nuisance pests such as ants; they do not warn students and parents when pesticides are applied; and they are "relatively careless" about when pesticides are applied at school.

A nontoxic approach to pest management at schools is both more effective and cheaper than the conventional approach, said Barry Zucker, director of the Ohio Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. And it has the complete support of the industry's National Pest Management Association, spokeswoman Cindy Mannes said.

Integrated Pest Management, as the nontoxic system is called, eliminates or drastically reduces the need for pesticides, Zucker said. The system involves making pest habitats unlivable by removing food and water sources and using baits and traps instead of spraying chemicals. Indiana University entomologist Marc Lame, who will be among the presenters Wednesday, said Integrated Pest Management results in better overall control at less cost, a consideration that usually appeals to budget-crunched school administrators.

"I poke at them. 'This is what you can do, so why don't you?' " said Lame.

Madison Schools Superintendent James Herrholtz said his system's maintenance supervisor will attend the educational event at Beachwood High School, although he's confident that another incident is avoidable.

A new pesticide agent has been hired, all work must occur on weekends, and internal spraying must occur in summer. Although written standards of pest control have not been adopted, all work must be scheduled through the maintenance supervisor.

The pesticide incident, Herrholtz said, was "so traumatic" to the community.

"It will never happen again."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

fhenry@plaind.com, 216-999-4806

© 2005 The Plain Dealer.