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Back to School for Pests

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Back to School for Pests

Logomasini Op-ed in Scripps Howard

As students return to school this fall, parents will again worry about new illnesses as kids come in contact with more cold and flu germs.  But there are other risks they should worry about--illnesses caused by the common bugs and rodents found in school buildings. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

But perhaps the even more dangerous pests are those individuals who prevent school administrators from swiftly addressing these problems.

Anti-chemical activists have pushed, and nearly 20 states and local government have passed, laws to eliminate or drastically reduce the use of pesticides in schools.  Yet 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 these things to get out of control should be obvious: increased allergies and illnesses related to insect and rodent bites, as well as reactions to plants like poison ivy.

Some states have passed a seemingly more reasonable policy that demands school administrators provide notification 48 to 72 hours before using pesticides.  But such laws allow problems to escalate during waiting periods when an urgent response is warranted.  Notification paperwork burdens also consume limited financial resources.  Journalist Steve Milloy reported in 2001 that the state notification law costs <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Maryland schools $32,000 annually.

Parents should fear these laws and the pests they harbor more than the pesticides.  Environmental Protection Agency pesticide standards are so exceedingly cautious that the risks are tiny when the product is used according to label directions.  An analysis done by University of Texas professor Frank Cross found that EPA's conservative risk estimates overstate pesticide exposure by hundreds of thousands times more than actual exposure levels.

Meanwhile, many of the pests in schools pose serious risks.  Allergies and asthma are a particular concern.  According to one 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, 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 due to asthma.  Fortunately, CDC reports that childhood asthma deaths are "rare."  However, they do occur.  In 2000, 223 children died from asthma.

Cockroach allergies are particularly problematic.  Researchers reported in the "New England Journal of Medicine" that 36 percent of the children in their study out of a sample of 476 suffered from cockroach-related allergies.  Children who suffered from this type of allergy missed more days of school, had more unscheduled hospital and doctor office visits, and lost more sleep than children suffering from other allergies.  Other reports have found that early exposure to cockroach allergens may contribute to the development of asthma for some children.

Prudent use of chemicals—not reduced pesticide use—can be a big part of the solution. A study last year in the "Journal of Allergies and Clinical Immunology" showed that use of chemical baits and regular cleaning can reduce indoor cockroach allergens to levels below that which causes allergies and reduce the number of trapped cockroaches by 96 percent.

Cockroaches aren't the only serous problem.  Rodent infestations offer another example.  Rats not only carry disease, they can pose fire hazards by chewing electrical lines.  Unfortunately, rat infestations are not as uncommon as one might think.  Earlier this year, the city of Chicago had to shut down 13 cafeterias and begin intensive rat control efforts at 600 schools because of rat infestations.

If people are truly concerned about public health in schools, it's time to start looking at priorities. Rather than liberate the pests, they should liberate the schools from silly government regulations and dangerous vermin.