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JAMA Study of Pesticide Risks in Schools
A study published this summer in the Journal of the American Medical Association underscores the risks of pesticide use in and around the nation’s schools. Analyzing 2,593 reported pesticide poisonings in schools and childcare centers between 1998 to 2002, the study reported several troubling findings: incidence rates among children increased significantly from 1998 to 2002; drifting pesticides applied off site were responsible for 31% of reported poisonings; and insecticides and disinfectants were the pesticides most frequently at fault. Study authors note that no federal requirement limits pesticide exposures at childcare centers, elementary or secondary schools, and that their results “should be considered low estimates of the magnitude of the problem because many cases of pesticide poisoning are likely not reported to surveillance systems and poison control centers.”
The study, “Acute Illnesses Associated With Pesticide Exposure at Schools,” examined state surveillance data in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks pesticides program and from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, and a national database of calls made to poison control centers in the Toxic Exposure Surveillance Systems. The study reported incidence rates of pesticide related illness of 7.4 cases per million for students and 27.3 cases per million for employees, but emphasized that individuals needed to seek medical care and be reported in order to be counted in the study. Pesticide related illnesses are grossly under-reported for a number of reasons: individuals may not seek or be able to afford medical care, doctors are often not trained to recognize pesticide related illness, and symptoms of minor or even moderate pesticide poisoning can resemble those of other common illnesses.
Children were the victims in 76% of the reported cases, and insecticides alone or combined with other pesticides were most often responsible-for 895 cases (or 35% of the total incidents). Disinfectants caused 830 cases (32%), repellants were responsible for 335 incidents (13%) and herbicides were the cause in 279 cases (11%).
Organophosphates were the class of insecticides most frequently responsible for poisonings. Children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of organophosphate pesticides, which have been linked in animal studies to developmental delays, behavioral disorders and motor dysfunction. In both laboratory animals and humans, exposure to chlorpyrifos, one of the most commonly used organophosphate pesticides, can cause delayed effects on the nervous system, sometimes occurring years after exposure.
The study focused on acute pesticide exposure, but the authors expressed considerable concern for long term effects, “Repeated pesticide applications on school grounds raise concerns about persistent low level exposures to pesticides at schools.” The authors continued, “The chronic long-term impacts of pesticide exposures have not been comprehensively evaluated; therefore, the potential for chronic health effects from pesticide exposures at schools should not be dismissed. Unfortunately, the surveillance methods used in our report are inadequate for assessing chronic effects.” The authors also noted that pesticides on school grounds can be tracked inside school buildings. Once inside, pesticides breakdown more slowly, with residues remaining for months or even years.
Federal legislation to require safer pest control in schools has been stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives for several years. Introduced in 1999 and adopted twice by the Senate, the School Environmental Protection Act requires schools to adopt less toxic methods of pest control, and notify parents and staff when pesticides are applied on school grounds. The legislation is the product of years of work by parent coalitions working to bring safer pest control practices to their schools. A 2003 report by the School Pesticide Reform Coalition and Beyond Pesticides provides models for parents and school districts of least toxic pest control with profiles of 27 school districts avoiding use of hazardous pesticides. The Coalition is now collecting pledges to its School Pesticide Reform Protocol on its website, which includes detailed arguments to present to school boards and administrators.
In the absence of a federal mandate, state policies on pesticide use in schools are widely disparate and provide mixed protections. Sixteen states require posting of signs for pesticide applications indoors or outdoors, 25 require posting for applications on school grounds. Twenty-one states require parents to be notified when pesticides are applied, 10 restrict certain highly toxic pesticides in schools, and 16 states recommend or require use of Integrated Pest Management. Only seven states attempt to control pesticide drift by restricting applications near schools.
Sources: Alarcon et al., “Acute Illnesses Associated With Pesticide Exposure at Schools” Journal of the American Medical Association, July 27, 2005, Vol. 294, No. 4; Press Release, July 27, 2005; Schooling of State Pesticide laws-2002 Update, Beyond Pesticides, http://www.beyondpesticides.org; Chlorpyrifos Facts, PANNA http://www.panna.org/resources/documents/factsChlorpyrifos.dv.html; “Achieving A Healthy Learning Environment Through Integrated Pest Management,” 2003, School Pesticide Reform Protocol, School Pesticide Reform Coalition, http://www.beyondpesticides.org/toxicfreeschools/index.htm.
PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don’t always get coverage by the mainstream media. It’s produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.
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