Getting the Bugs Out: Pesticides and Your Child’s School by Barbara Rubin

January 1st, 2010

This article appeared in the Winter, 2002 edition of “Sully’s Living Without” magazine. It should be noted that most of the population in the United States was exposed to the same chemical as the child in this article, prior to the banning of many organophosphate pesticides from use in residences and schools in recent years. Unfortunately, the majority of staff and parents of children attending schools throughout this country – institutions designed to nurture children’s minds and bodies – are still left in ignorance of chemical applications on those sites. The hypocrisy is staggering and will hopefully be addressed in every state as the EPA, under the Obama adminstration, begins to consider the needs of citizens as opposed to reducing our constitutional status to that of mere consumers.

GETTING THE BUGS OUT: Pesticides and Your Child’s School by Barbara Rubin

Michael Eash went through the first grade in his Pennsylvania school with frequent flu-like illnesses. His pediatrician noted that he missed 30 days out of the school year. His mother, Connie, watched his symptoms worsen during the week, only to improve on weekends and holidays when he wasn’t in school. The cycle began to repeat itself the following fall. Connie and two other mothers noticed an insecticide odor in the classroom. The teacher reported that many in her class were suffering from symptoms similar to MIchael’s.

Michael’s doctor tested him for exposure to organophosphate pesticides, finding him abnormally low in concentrations of the red blood cell cholinesterase, an indication of pesticide poisoning. Connie removed Michael from the classroom and began to teach him at home. In time, his blood levels returned to normal, but he showed a heightened sensitivity to pesticides, fragrances, cleaning products and other household chemicals. It was clear to Connie that Michael required a school environment that was free of toxins in order to remain well.

Doesn’t every parent want a toxin-free school for their child?


Pesticides, like the organophosphate product used in Michael’s school, are designed to kill targeted pests by destroying their central nervous systems. Non-targeted organisms, such a beneficial insects,pets and humans , can also be adversely affected. Acute and chronic exposure to pesticides has been associated with many major and minor health problems, eliciting asthmatic and dermatological reactions, as well as symptoms of toxicity affecting gastrointestinal, endocrine, immune, reproductive and/or neurological systems. Exposure to pesticides is also linked to increased rates of cancer.

According to Dr. Sheldon Wagner of the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon Stte University, the organosphosphate class of pesticides is of the highest order of toxicity. Dr. Wagner has served in a variety of advisory capacities to EPA and is now administrator of the National Medical Monitoring Program. “Misapplied organophosphate pesticides can mimic asthma,” says Dr. Wagner, emphasizing that more serious effects are possible under conditions of chronic exposure.

Lower toxicity pesticides, like the natural pyrethrums, are not without their own dangers. “Pyrethrum is a known allergen which can cause asthma and skin reactions,” Wagner said, adding that too little is known about the possible adverse effects of pyrethroids, the synthetic versions of pyrethrums. “Certain groups of children, such as the ‘atopic’ or allergic youngster, are at greater risk for adverse effects from contact with both the active and inert ingredients of these chemicals.” He recommends that parents be informed before these material are used on school sites, so they can make choices regarding undesirable exposures.


Recognizing that we are all exposed to pesticides in multiple ways in our day-to-day lives and that this exposure is problematic, particularly for vulnerable groups like children, the chronically ill, pregnant women and the elderly, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996. The Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review and reduce permitted levels of pesticide residues on foods. The Act’s focus is on foods, however; it does not address pesticides use in homes, gardens, offices and schools.

The U.S. Senate has twice passed the School Environment Protection Act (SEPA), which contains a policy known as “integrated pest management” or IPM. IPM promotes pest control using a variety of least toxic methods, such as blocking pests’ entry into buildings with caulk and window screens and cleaning up likely sources of food and water. It recommends common sense solutions to pest control problems which do not necessarily involves the use of poisons, such as removing pests with a HEPA vacuum or using gel baits and other materials which do not become airborne. If stronger pest control is warranted, IPM allows targeted applications of more toxic pesticides but requires that special precautions be taken, such as notifying affected people within the vicinity. Opponents argued that the bill is expensive, burdensome and unnecessary, and SEPA died in a House Committee.

According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, four states- Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania- now have regulations which contain all the SEPA provisions. Other states have one or two of the EPA requirement, but there is no uniformity among them.

Until now, pesticides have been a ubiquitous, if unconscious part of the national landscape. The SEPA debates have helped to increase public awareness of this issue, and concern about pesticide use is growing internationally. Canada has taken a leadership position in adopting a precautionary approach to chemical exposures. Many communities there have passed laws that restrict the cosmetic use of pesticides and herbicides on public lands and privately owned lawns where children and other bystanders can be affected.


The Eash family moved to Connecticut , where they enrolled Micheal in a school district that uses strategies to promote a healthy school environment. Facility managers maintain school grounds and buildings using a careful selection of “least toxic” products. For example, the use of pesticides and herbicides on turf is reduced by sowing multiple seed types in high concentrations to help ensure survival of healthy grasses. Application of certain soil amendments, along with a variety of aeration and mowing techniques, all promote lawn health and reduce pest infestation. in addition, effective water management (e.g. reducing amounts used for irrigation during humid weather) limits the growth of fungi.

The same thoughtful attention is given to indoor maintenance. The entry of pests into buildings is prevented by sealing cracks in foundations and installing screens. The facility managers keep buildings in good shape and promptly repair leaks. They make certain that all food is properly stored and disposed of and that facilities are kept clean. As a result, the school provides necessary maintenance while it reduces the costs normally associated with pest control. A pest control company inspects school buildings every month. If pests are noted in large number, the least toxic measures, such as gel baits or boric acid, are used. In rare cases where a more toxic product is recommended, advance notification goes out to all concerned staff and parents.

Applications are then made outside of school operating hours. When the state of Connecticut adopted laws to reduce pesticide use in its schools, this district already exceeded the provisions of the new statutes.

Advance notification of chemical applications on school property is still not required in most states. Fortunately for Micheal Eash, such notification had become policy in his new school district. However, until such policies become standard, parents are well advised to be aware of school maintenance policies and procedures. only a healthy school environment can foster learning and personal growth.

Categories: Articles, Published, Sully's Living Without magazine

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