State Legislatures Face Anti-Pesticide Bills

Published August 1, 2004

Anti-chemical activists have pushed several state governments in recent years to pass laws to eliminate or drastically reduce the use of pesticides in schools and daycare centers. To date, about 20 states have enacted such laws. Some of those measures have fully banned pesticide use in schools, while others mandate paperwork and notification programs that school administrators must follow if they use pesticides.

Other states are currently considering such laws, and federal action might mandate it nationwide. Congress nearly passed an anti-pesticide measure in 2001 as part of the “No Child Left Behind” education bill, and its supporters continue to push that agenda.

Not Easy Being Chemical-Free

The Natural Resources Defense Council states on its Web site, “pesticides are poisons”–hence, the group concludes, governments must act to keep pesticides away from children. Many parents feel the same way: “I feel so much better knowing that my kids go to a school where I don’t have to worry about those issues,” one parent recently told the Seattle Times.

But parents should be as worried about the potential for pest populations to grow out of control. Pesticides are used to control roaches, molds, mice, rats, wasps, lice, fleas, mosquitoes, spiders, fire ants, poison ivy, and other pests. The public health implications of allowing them to get out of control are substantial: increased allergic reactions to the vectors and their feces, as well as diseases from insect and rodent bites. Children will suffer if schools and daycare centers are not able to control these pests.

Advocates of pesticide-free schools say they are promoting integrated pest management (IPM). By industry standards, however, IPM includes non-chemical methods for pest management (such as good sanitation) as well as the prudent use of chemical products. Without chemical products, it is much more difficult to run a successful IPM program. Many schools won’t make the grade.

Parents know that trying to control cockroaches at home without the help of chemicals isn’t easy. Control is even more difficult in public places such as schools, where food is prepared for and distributed to a large number of people. In addition, many schools are in older buildings that offer myriad crevices and crawlspaces for pests and where pest colonies have been established for decades.

Few homeowners try to control poison ivy and other unwanted plants without the use of herbicides. In fact, it is precisely because chemical-free pest management has historically failed that herbicides were invented.

Schools Ignore Law

Many schools already are having problems meeting the paperwork burdens associated with chemical-free pest management. In Massachusetts, for example, state law requires each school to produce a detailed IPM plan for pest control, but the Boston Globe reported in its May 25 edition that many schools don’t have the time or resources to get the paperwork together. An audit by the state’s Pesticide Bureau of the Department of Agricultural Resources reported more than 70 percent of schools and 90 percent of daycare centers fail to abide by the law.

“We’re trying to run a school system, and we don’t have the staff to go and chase every one of these silly mandates,” explained Arlington School Committee chairman Paul Schlichtman to the Globe. “The biggest pest management issue we have is with people who add mandates and cut funding.”

“I guess I am not alone,” said a school official in another district about his school’s noncompliance.

Some states have taken a different but equally burdensome approach, passing pesticide notification laws that require school administrators to contact parents or post notification before using pesticides. Such laws are often impractical and can prevent schools from quickly responding to a pest problem. The laws usually demand that notification be made 48 or 72 hours before pesticides are used. Meanwhile, insects and rodents continue to roam the schools.

Notification also imposes significant paperwork burdens on schools and consumes limited financial resources. Steven Milloy, publisher of and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, reported in 2001 that the Maryland state notification law cost Anne Arundel County schools $32,000 annually, diverting resources from other, higher priority needs.

Pesticides Proven Safe

The larger problem with notification laws is their intent to discourage pesticide use altogether by increasing costs and generating fear about chemical use.

All pesticide products undergo extensive testing to ensure their safety before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves them for use. EPA traditionally sets standards at exposure levels 100 times safer than what regulators actually consider safe. Under the 1996 pesticide law, EPA is now applying a standard 1,000 times safer than a “no adverse effect level” for many pesticides.

EPA’s cautious exposure assumptions often mean the agency sets standards based on risk levels that are tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands of times higher than actual risks. University of Texas Professor Frank Cross reviewed studies on the topic in 1997, just after the new pesticide law was passed. He found EPA’s conservative risk estimates overstated pesticide exposure by as much as 99,000 to 463,000 times actual exposure levels.

According to the EPA risk assessment on the pesticide malathion, conducted in 2000, the current federal regulatory standards ensure that a three-year-old toddler could stand for 20 minutes in a cloud of malathion that remains at the full, legally allowed concentration level as released from a fogger truck and suffer no significant harm.

Such highly cautious assumptions about exposure, and other built-in safety factors, ensure that low-level exposures of pesticides approved by EPA cannot reach anywhere near levels that should cause concern, provided they are used according to label directions.

Pests Harming Children

Many of the pests found in the nation’s schools pose a far more serious risk to children. Allergies and asthma are a particular concern. According to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1995), “Allergens associated with dust mites and cockroaches are probably important in both onset and worsening of asthma symptoms for children who are chronically exposed to these agents.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6.3 million children suffered from asthma in 2000; 4.2 million experienced asthma attacks; 728,000 visited hospital emergency rooms; and 214,000 were hospitalized because of asthma. Although childhood asthma deaths are rare, they do occur: In 2000, for example, 223 American children died from asthma, according to CDC figures.

Cockroach-related allergies are among the most common and problematic of allergies in the United States. In an article in the May 8, 1997 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers reported that 36 percent of the children in their study (from a sample of 476 asthmatic children) suffered from cockroach-related allergies. The report also found that children who suffered from this type of allergy missed more days of school, had more unscheduled hospital and doctor’s office visits, suffered more frequently from wheezing, and lost sleep more often than children suffering from other allergies. Other reports have found that early exposure to cockroach allergens may contribute to the development of asthma in some children.

Prudent use of chemicals–not reduced pesticide use–can be a big part of the solution. A study published in the March 2003 issue of the Journal of Allergies and Clinical Immunology showed that use of chemical baits along with regular cleaning can reduce indoor cockroach allergens to levels below the threshold that causes allergies. The number of trapped cockroaches in the study decreased 96 percent in treated homes.

Roaches aren’t the only pests that require control. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), allergies related to biting and stinging insects are relatively common, and they cause serious reactions in some cases. The NIH reports between 40 and 100 deaths annually from insect bites and stings in the United States; they believe that number “may be markedly underestimated.”

Some schools also must grapple with rodent infestations. Rats not only carry disease, they can pose fire hazards by chewing electrical lines. In early 2004, the City of Chicago shut down 13 school cafeterias and began intensive rat control efforts at 600 schools because of rat infestations. Successful rat control involves many methods, including traps and baiting with chemical rodenticides.

Poisonous plants also present considerable risks to school children. A Wisconsin school district reversed its ban on herbicides used to control poison ivy after a student had to undergo a 22-day course of steroids to treat a poison ivy rash contracted through exposure at the school.

“Properly applied pesticides are safe,” notes Milloy. “More importantly, pesticides … are necessary. Our children’s health often depends on pesticide application.” Rather than liberate the pests, state officials should be liberating schools from wrong-headed government regulations and the dangerous vermin they breed.

Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Her email address is [email protected].