Pesticide bans put children at risk from roaches, rodents

Published July 1, 2002

In the first phase of a carefully scripted campaign to ban the use of pesticides in the United States, environmental activist groups have taken aim at a population they usually claim to defend: children.

Making no secret of their ultimate goal of using more “natural” means—such as a dramatically increased spider population—to control nuisance and disease-carrying insects, the anti-chemical groups are targeting schools and parks in their efforts to ban pesticides entirely.

The U.S. Senate in June 2001 approved a measure, added as an amendment to last year’s education bill, that would have required schools to notify parents about what pesticides are being sprayed in public schools and when such spraying occurs. The amendment—removed from the final bill by a single vote during House-Senate conference committee negotiations—also would have banned the use of pesticides where children congregate.

A similar measure, tacked onto the Senate version of this year’s farm bill, was also defeated in negotiations with the House.

Across the country, 31 states have adopted pesticide laws with provisions mirroring one or more of the provisions of the Senate bills. Four states—Maryland, Masaschusetts, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—have adopted legislation mirroring all of the Senate bills’ provisions.

Local bans foreshadowed Senate action

In 1996, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban the use of most pesticides deemed “toxic.” That term toxic, however, is relative, as most everything is toxic in one form, or in one degree, or another. (See “An antidote to chemophobia” on page 17 of this issue.)

In 1998, the Maryland legislature passed the School Pesticide Notification Act. Like the current Senate legislation, the Maryland measure was described by anti-technology groups as a mere “notification” law. However, real-world application of the statute has deterred anti-pest treatments though red tape and attrition.

“It is not as though we were sending airplanes to fog the area around a school each time we treat for cockroaches,” observed Dan LaHart, environmental issues manager for the Anne Arundel County, Marland, public schools. “Instead, we take a hypodermic needle with a gel bait and inject it right into the cracks and crevices when a roach problem exists.”

Nevertheless, the Maryland act has taken a quick, precise pest treatment program and transformed it into a bureaucratic leviathan. According to Maryland school workers, the statute has turned a 15-minute public health procedure into a week-long process, complete with a mountain of paperwork and immense expenditures in man-hours and related expenses. “Notifying parents costs schools $32,000 a year,” noted Steve Milloy, a biostatistician and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

Environmental activists in California attempted to pass a similar statute, but Democratic Governor Gray Davis—more often a leading proponent of environmental activist issues— recognized the threat to public health posed by the proposal and vetoed the bill.

Failing to learn from the mistakes made in San Francisco and Maryland, the city of Lawrence, Kansas decided this spring to stop using pesticides on 12 acres of public parks. “These are pretty small parks, but it’s a start,” said Terry Shistar, an environmental activist and board member of Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP.

Pesticides critical in fighting disease

“Properly applied pesticides are safe,” countered Milloy. “More importantly, pesticides—including disinfectants, rodenticides, insecticides and herbicides—are necessary. Our children’s health often depends on pesticide application. Children face serious health threats in schools from cockroaches, fire ants, bees, wasps, mosquitoes, poison oak and ivy, rats, and mice.”

Myriad scientific studies have documented the correlation between cockroaches and child asthma, insects and disease, rodents and health epidemics. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, cockroach allergen (typically consisting of cockroach feces and decaying cockroach body parts) are highly associated with childhood and adult disease. Such allergens can be present in levels high enough to cause disease, even after extermination and rigorous cleaning, if they are allowed to establish themselves in the first place. But in areas treated with pesticides, cockroach allergen levels drop by 77 to 91 percent.

“Appropriate use of pesticides has helped us achieve the highest standard of living ever,” summarized Milloy. “From increasing agricultural crop yields to preventing or halting the spread of insect-borne disease, we depend greatly on these invaluable tools.”

Senate bill just the first step

Statements issued by Beyond Pesticides and other environmental activist groups make it clear that efforts to limit pesticide use in schools and public parks are merely the first step toward a more comprehensive pesticide ban. Also apparent are the questionable motives behind their anti-pesticide campaign.

Allegedly to facilitate a healthy bird population, the Audubon Society is seeking to ban lawn chemicals used to control the insects and pests that live around children’s homes. In a recent editorial in Long Island’s Newsday, Audubon members claimed pesticide poisoning was “the single leading cause of death among birds” in New York.

That claim is typical of accusations made by environmental activist groups: questionable in their underlying motive, reported without verification or critique by the mainstream media, and having no scientific foundation.

In May 2001, researchers at a New York State laboratory evaluated 3,216 bird carcasses and issued a report describing the results of their work. West Nile virus—a “natural” disease that can be all but eradicated by applying pesticides to limit mosquito populations—was found to be responsible for 1,263 bird deaths. Lawn-care pesticides were identified as the culprits in just 27 bird deaths.

Lessons from DDT

Similar lessons can be drawn from the environmentalists’ successful efforts to ban DDT.

“DDT is a persistent, bioaccumulative, hormone-disrupting chemical,” alleges the World Wildlife Fund’s director of anti-DDT activities. “It is associated in the public’s mind with weakened eggshells and declining bird populations.”

Although the public relations campaigns of such groups as WWF have to a large extent succeeded in frightening the public, sound science has widely discredited their claims. Indeed, an EPA administrative law judge held as much shortly before the agency nevertheless gave in to special-interest pressure and banned DDT in the early 1970s.

“DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man,” concluded the judge after seven months of hearings and 9,000 pages of testimony. “DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man. … The use of DDT under the regulations involved here [does] not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife.”

The EPA judge’s conclusions followed directly on the heels of a report by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded: “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. … [I]n a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that otherwise would have been inevitable.”

Although DDT effectively eliminated malaria in the U.S. and other developed countries before falling victim to environmental activist groups, the children of Third World countries have not been so lucky. Restrictions on the application of DDT in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, mean 1 in every 20 children die from malaria there, according to Milloy.

And now these same anti-technology environmental groups, dismayed they were “too late” in banning DDT in the U.S., are targeting the remaining pesticides that fight disease and keep our children safe in schools and public parks.