Playing With Poison 04/22/99
Monterey County children face hidden threats from pesticide use in their schools.
Thursday, April 22, 1999
April 22nd is Earth Day, a day when people across the globe will take a moment to reflect on their role in preserving and restoring a safe and healthy environment.
Children in schools throughout Monterey County will celebrate Earth Day. They will learn about nature and perhaps plant a tree. They may discover where an interesting animal lives or even visit a tide pool. During the day they will almost certainly hear how important it is for every living thing to live in a clean and safe environment.
So it''s ironic that in these very same classrooms where our children are taught about environmental protection, they themselves are being exposed to a range of pesticides that are known or suspected to cause cancer, affect the central nervous system and cause organ damage. While the use of some of these chemicals is regulated in other industries, there is little control over how and when they are used in schools.
Relatively little is understood about children''s health in relation to toxins in general. Of the 75,000 man-made chemicals introduced and disseminated over the last 50 years, fewer than half have been adequately tested for human toxicity. Fewer still have been assessed for their toxicity to children.
It wasn''t until Earth Day 1997 when President Clinton issued the Executive Order on Protection of Children From Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risk, that the governmental agencies responsible for identifying and assessing environmental dangers began to distinguish the bodies and behaviors of children as different from those of adults. Until then, scientists had not been required to consider the fact that children are uniquely more susceptible to environmental health risks.
Because children are still developing physically, consume more food and breathe more air in proportion to their body weight, and because they often spend time close to the ground, they are more vulnerable to environmental dangers of all kinds. Yet while parents are busy keeping their children away from strangers and moving vehicles, unbeknownst to them their children are being exposed--sometimes daily--to dangerous pest-killing chemicals.
In late 1997, Jonathan Kaplan, toxics program director for the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) Charitable Trust, phoned the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to ask if highly toxic pesticides were being used in our state''s public schools. Their response: That just doesn''t happen.
"I was given broad assurances that none of these pesticides would be applied," says Kaplan, "but no one had ever checked it out. We decided to survey the schools ourselves, and what we found was that highly toxic pesticides are the rule, not the exception."
CALPIRG requested pesticide-use information from 54 schools districts throughout California. Over a period of four months, and eventually employing legal channels, Kaplan and his team received responses from 46 districts, including the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. The findings, published last year in Failing Health, the first comprehensive evaluation of pesticide use in California schools, are more than a little disconcerting.
Many districts were reluctant to disclose or discuss pertinent information. Most schools, even those that did respond, did not keep complete pesticide application records. Application rates and quantities were also widely unavailable and, because of this, it was nearly impossible to ascertain exactly which pesticides were being used on campuses, and how. Often the school districts were themselves unaware of the methods and types of pesticides utilized.
Despite the difficulty in retrieving and analyzing data from the school districts, Failing Health ascertained that:
&bul; 93 percent of responding districts reported using pesticides on school grounds.
&bul; 70 percent reported using pesticides that are categorized as "possible" human carcinogens and 52 percent reported using pesticides that are known developmental and reproductive toxins.
&bul; At least 30 percent of the districts contracted for "calendar spraying," a practice that requires application even when pests are not present.
&bul; California schools are not required by law to report on pesticide usage and rarely, if ever, inform students, parents and teachers that pesticides will be or have been applied.
This spring, the Weekly decided to survey 11 out of the 24 Monterey County school districts in order to identify local policies and patterns of pesticide usage. These 11 districts are responsible for schooling 87 percent of K-12 students in the county.
On February 19, a request was sent out to these districts under the California Public Records Act, asking for records of pesticide use in their schools for the 1996/97 school year.
Despite the law requiring a response within 10 days, only five of the districts submitted any of the requested materials on their own. After prodding, four more schools complied. Two districts--Gonzales Unified School District and Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD)--would not provide any information. The information in this article relative to MPUSD was provided by CALPIRG, and was disputed by the district. While application records for 1997 published by CALPIRG show that MPUSD regularly applied 12 different types of pesticides on campuses throughout the district (see chart, p. 18), Carlos Pina, MPUSD manager of safety and utilities, told the Weekly "currently only Round Up is being used and we have records for all applications." Those records, however, were not supplied to the newspaper.
CALPIRG''s Kaplan believes that a large part of the problem in retrieving comprehensive pesticide information from schools is, quite simply, that the schools themselves may not know what''s being used on their grounds. "Schools are not required to keep systematic records, so it takes time-consuming research to discover what pesticides are being used," he says.
Another part of their reticence may be due to fear. "Some districts have so ignored the issue of pesticide use that they don''t want to find any bad surprises that would result in bad press for them," continues Kaplan. "There is a strong incentive for them not to come forward."
The Weekly''s findings echo those of CALPIRG. Although all nine local districts reported using pesticides, most were unable to supply dates or application specifics. Their records were incomplete at best, often no more than a few barely legible invoices or purchase orders. Only one local school district (Pacific Grove Unified) has a pesticide policy in place requiring, first, that the least toxic alternative be used and second, that students, teachers and parents be notified of upcoming pesticide treatments.
Most importantly, we discovered that all nine districts use highly toxic chemicals on school campuses, yet their records do not show the exact quantities or how often they were applied.
Washington Union School District (WUSD) in Salinas was one of the first schools to respond to our survey, and by no means the worst offender. Their response illustrates how hard it is to assess the pesticide danger in our schools.
"During the 1996/97 school year," the WUSD response reads, in part, "the district contracted with Terminix to apply Dursban and Tempo WP for the control of fleas and other outdoor pests at San Benancio Middle School. These applications were made once a month at 6:30 in the morning, outside school buildings."
Both of these pesticides are known to cause severe side effects in humans. The active ingredient in Dursban can be so harmful that the EPA requires a full day after spraying before adult farm workers are allowed to reenter the fields. While formulations of pesticides sprayed in the field are stronger than those used in non-agricultural settings, applying pesticides one hour before students and teachers arrive increases the possibility for exposure.
Dr. Kirk Murphy, assistant clinical professor at UCLA School of Medicine agrees. "These chemicals are toxic and in order to be effective, they must persist in the environment for a period of time. That''s how they work. If applied just prior to students arriving at school, the toxic effects are even greater."
Washington Union''s response continues: "The district also used Fumatoxin for the eradication of gophers on the San Benancio campus...monthly and sometimes twice monthly and was applied underground." Fumatoxin, a pesticide applied beneath turf areas and playing fields, contains aluminum phosphide; a Federally Restricted Use Pesticide that is classified as one of the most dangerous poisons.
Again, Washington Union''s case is only illustrative: This story is repeated across all the districts.
"Of course we are very concerned with pesticide use in Monterey County," says Vickie Masuda, president of the Monterey County chapter of the California State Parent Teacher Association (PTA). "The PTA is adamant about safety whether it''s gang violence or pesticides. Every child has the right to be in a safe school."
While Masuda and the Monterey County PTA are not presently active in the pesticide debate, she wants to encourage parents to get involved. "The community has the right to know about pesticides in the schools. We do have sick children whose illnesses are a mystery. It''s everyone''s concern," she says.
Applied By Experts
In all fairness, no one is suggesting that school administrators are consciously trying to poison their children. Pesticides are applied for a reason--schools have a responsibility to keep their campuses sanitary and free from disease-carrying bugs and rodents. Even CALPIRG agrees that cockroaches and other pests are a known health hazard. And recent studies have shown that roaches are a powerful allergen linked to a rise in childhood asthma. County health officials view pesticides as necessary and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, safe.
"In the last couple of years there have been no complaints [of pesticide illness] that I am aware of," says Walter Wong, county director of Environmental Health. "We also keep an eye on the food areas and do not allow spraying in open kitchens. Any efforts to be cautious about using chemicals are worth it. They are toxic, but complete phasing out may be difficult because lice and cockroach problems do exist. The direction the county has taken is more caution, not phase out. The effects of the pests may be worse than the pesticides."
Despite the very real need for pest control, the fact remains that most school districts, as well as parents and teachers, are in the dark about the safety and types of pesticides used on school grounds. Pest control services are contracted and paid for, generally without disclosing, on either invoices or purchase orders, which chemicals are applied, how much, and where. The Weekly tried numerous times to contact Terminix, Casner and Target exterminators to determine exactly what pesticides these companies use in local schools, but those companies provided no information.
School districts rely on the fact that all dangerous and restricted-use pesticides must be applied by licensed applicators. Pesticide Applicators Professional Association (PAPA), a local agency responsible for certifying many Monterey County applicators, declined comment for this article. Still, the Weekly learned that all applicators must hold a Qualified Applicators License (QAL), for which they must undergo extensive training, as well as 20 hours of continuing education every two years for license renewal.
Opinions are mixed about the effectiveness of the training programs. "Within the pesticide applicator industry, everyone is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of pesticides and practices are changing," says Bob Cromeenes of R.L. Cromeenes Landscape Management Services, an applicator working for Santa Rita Union School District.
Cromeenes stresses that he does not spray during the week when schools are in session. He applies most of his pesticides on Saturdays. When asked about soccer games and other weekend events, he responds, "We juggle around the games on weekends." The product he uses on the fields is called Turflon. While not considered to be of the most toxic class of pesticides, Turflon''s active ingredient, triclopyr, is a Federally Restricted Use Pesticide labeled "Danger," as well as a suspected kidney toxicant, and is registered on two federal regulatory lists.
"I always take care in dealing with any chemicals, especially in a school situation," says Steve Gregg of Gregg''s Pest Control, a contractor with the Carmel Unified School District, "but that''s why I started my own business. I don''t leave a site until the chemicals are dry and not able to be recontacted. I don''t broadcast spray like the big firms. I used to work for one of the bigger companies. We''d have 10-15 accounts a day and had to rush through them. We''d leave puddles. We couldn''t stay on the job because we didn''t have the time. You can''t blame the technicians. They don''t properly train them."
Gregg was unaware that Tempo 20WP and Dragnet, the two pesticides he most commonly uses, contain chemicals that are either suspected to cause cancer or can harm the central nervous system. "If you can let me know what I can use that''s safer, I would be glad to use it," he says.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the incidence of certain types of cancer in children have been increasing dramatically. A child born today faces a 1-in-600 chance of contracting cancer before the age of 10.
While the reasons for this increase are not completely understood, experts agree it is likely that environmental factors play a role. Numerous studies have linked cancer with the proliferation of chemicals in the environment, and more specifically, pesticides.
The U.S. EPA lists at least four of the pesticides widely used in Monterey County as "possible" human carcinogens: Cypermethrin (Demon), hydramethelnon (Max Force), oryzalin (Surflan) and permethrin (Dragnet).
Other groups of common pesticides have been shown to affect a child''s developing reproductive and nervous systems. Experts now conclude chlorinated pesticides, such as PCBs and DDTs, as well as hormone-mimicking chemicals (endocrine disrupters) and organophosphates can cause adverse health effects in children.
According to Mark Miller, M.D., MPH and a member of the Environmental Health Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, even low levels of exposure to organophosphates, such as chlorpyrifos (the active ingredient in Dursban), may cause some symptoms. "The effects of organophosphates are cumulative so that if the chemical used in the home and in food is added to those used on school grounds, something may tip the bucket."
Monterey County school districts reported using five of these types of chemicals: Chlorpyrifos (Dursban), cypermethrin (Demon), diazinon, hydramethlynon (Max Force) and propetamphos (Catalyst).
Using the EPA''s own words, "Pesticides are not ''safe.'' They are produced specifically because they are toxic to something."
IPM: The Way To Go
Leading the way in California with tough pesticide legislation is Los Angeles Unified School District.
On March 24, the nation''s second largest school district decided to phase out all dangerous pesticides over the next three years. By patching cracks, steam cleaning behind kitchen appliances, banning food in most areas, improving sanitation and hiring more gardeners to pull out weeds, the district hopes to follow in the steps of a successful San Francisco Unified District program that saw an overall decline of pesticides and pests. Under the new LAUSD policy, a Pest Management Team will be created of parents, teachers, health professionals, and district officials. Staff will be retrained to meet the district''s changing needs. And every chemical used by the district must be approved after careful review of toxicity, dangers and low-risk alternatives.
This progressive approach is called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. According to a national program called School IPM, alternatives to traditional pest control methods can involve something as simple as decreasing the resources pests need to survive. If pests become a problem, non-chemical alternatives are employed to reduce pest populations. Pesticides are used only as the last resort, selecting the least hazardous material and precisely applying it to maximize efficacy and to minimize risks.
For 25 years, the California State PTA has been calling for reductions in the use of dangerous pesticides on school campuses. In October 1998, the California PTA adopted a resolution in support of IPM and "right-to-know" legislation. "All school districts should have their own strong pesticide policies," says Carla Nino, state PTA vice president for health. "They claim that they are following the laws, but the parents are never informed--and that is the vital issue. Right now, I don''t know if anyone, teachers included, are aware of pesticide procedures. Maintenance just comes in and sprays."
While not willing to admit that school pesticide use is a problem, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation agrees that schools can do better. A 1993 DPR survey of 556 schools found that 62 percent did not incorporate least-toxic pest management policies.
"As you can imagine, schools are a very challenging environment for good pest management," says Glen Brank, DPR spokesperson. " Lots of people, kids, food, messes and open doors. But they are also promising environments for the use of IPM to reduce risk and use least toxic methods--and in many cases even prevent the problems."
Kudos for P.G.
Of the schools surveyed in Monterey County, only Pacific Grove Unified School District contains an Integrated Pest Management policy.
Just last year, PGUSD adopted the pest management policy recommended by the California State School Board Association. Pesticides will only be used upon review, non-chemical methods will be used whenever possible in order to eliminate routine spraying, and staff, students, and parents or guardians shall receive notification of any upcoming pesticide treatments.
Despite this comprehensive policy on the books, PGUSD has not carefully implemented IPM at the school level. According to Assistant Superintendent Robin Blakely, pesticide use in the district has never been an issue, and parents are only notified of pesticide use in a general letter sent out at the beginning of the school year covering a series of issues, including asbestos and other potential dangers.
Blakely expressed surprise to learn that dangerous chemicals are being sprayed regularly throughout his district--sometimes before and even during class hours. "We retain licensed professionals to do a job who are contracted with the assumption that they are following all the laws in place," says Blakely. Indeed, PGUSD does contract for monthly pest control services, and pesticides are sprayed even when no pests are present, again contrary to the district''s own policy. "We''ve been complacent because we''ve been led to believe that all the pesticides being used are not hazardous. The policy is also new and takes time to work out. We will look into this."
Clearly, creating a policy is only one of the hurdles. Putting it to work is the real test. "Implementation is a lot of work, and especially difficult when the school bureaucrats are resistant," says Jonathan Kaplan of CALPIRG. "They''re stretched thin and their first mission is to educate. Many of them don''t want to be bothered. But they are also responsible for maintaining the school facility as a safe place to study. They have to make it happen."
Soon they may have no choice. The Healthy Schools Act of 1999, a bill before the California State Assembly right now, could fundamentally change the way California schools look at pesticides.
"Under current law we know more about the pesticides used on a head of cabbage in the field than about pesticides sprayed at schools," says the bill''s sponsor, San Francisco Assemblymember Kevin Shelley. "Schools have to be a healthy environment for children. Pesticides, especially carcinogenic and class I toxins [the most toxic materials] should be examined, especially when we''ve seen a whole series of significant health disorders."
The Act would ban the use of the most dangerous chemicals in classrooms and would institute mandatory parent notification. Three days before the school plans to use pesticides, parents would receive notice in writing from the school. Signs describing when and where pesticides are to be applied will be posted 24 hours prior, and will remain posted for four days.
This is Shelley''s second attempt to pass tough pesticide legislation. His previous bill, AB 1948, known as the "School Pesticide Right to Know Act," died quietly last year without vote in a Pete Wilson-led Senate.
"We''re going for it again, and this year we made the bill tougher," Shelley pledges. "Much of the damage [done by pesticides] is insidious, meaning that the signs don''t show up until much later. We must do everything we can to protect the children. Nothing is more important."