Pesticide Spin Belies Safety Record

If you read the recent press the press reports, you might believe that returning your children to school this fall will place them at grave risk. The problem isn’t terrorism, kids with guns, or even deteriorating playgrounds and school buildings. Supposedly, it’s that herbicide used to kill poison ivy in the school yard, the bug spray used to control cockroaches in the halls, the disinfectants used in the cafeteria, or the gentile breeze carrying pesticides from a nearby farm into open school windows. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


At least that’s the suggestion in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It rehashes data collected from federal medical surveillance efforts, such as data collected from telephone calls to various poison control centers. But the findings are anything but alarming. The data indicate that there are very few problems associated with pesticide use in or near schools. 


Over a four-year period, the report finds no fatalities and only three serious cases of pesticide exposure-related illnesses. We have no details on these three cases, but the “high severity” category indicates unfortunate accidents that may have been life threatening or required hospitalization. 


The rest of the nearly 2,600 cases involved temporary reactions to chemicals that left no long-term effects. The vast majority—89 percent of the cases—were categorized as “low severity,” involving such things as skin irritation, dizziness, headaches, or possible emotional stress associated with exposure to chemicals. Given that the study measures four years of incidents among about 50 million school-age children, these data are indicative of an incredibly impressive safety record despite spin to the contrary.     


Yet activists—and even the study authors—are using the data to argue for more regulations on pesticide use in schools. States have already enacted dozens of such laws and some have banned the use of pesticides altogether. Ironically, such actions will do more harm than good because they don’t balance the pesticide risks against the need for such products to control dangerous pests. 


Consider that illnesses caused by fire ants in just one state dwarf the number of health problems associated with pesticides in schools. The Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association notes: “In 1998, there were an estimated 660,000 cases of fire ant stings in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />South Carolina, of which approximately 33,000 sought medical treatment for an estimated cost of $2.4 million.” Hence, South Carolina’s fire ants caused more than ten times the illnesses in one year than did pesticide use in every school in the nation over four years.


It is true that not all these fire ant illnesses occurred in schools, but the data are indicative of the scope of that one pest problem, which also affects kids at school. Texas’s Agricultural Extension service notes: “Red imported fire ants can be a serious problem for teachers and children cultivating schoolyard gardens in Texas.”


Cockroaches also pose serious risks to children. According to one study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 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.”


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, more than 6 million children suffered from asthma in 2000; more than 4 million experienced asthma attacks; 728,000 visited hospital emergency rooms; and 214,000 were hospitalized. In 2000, 223 children died from asthma.


Students are also at risk from rats, which not only carry disease but also can pose fire hazards by chewing electrical lines. Unfortunately, rat infestations are not as uncommon as one might think. Last year, the city of Chicago had to shut down 13 cafeterias and begin intensive rat control efforts at 600 schools because of rat infestations.


Other problems arise from poison ivy, stinging and disease-carrying insects like bees and mosquitoes breeding on or near school grounds, dust mites, food-borne illness, molds and so on—all of which can be reduced with the use of pesticides and disinfectants.


Children around the nation do indeed face some serious public health risks. Unfortunately, hype about the impact of pesticides only promises to make things worse.