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Do area schools make the grade in chemical safety?
By Joy Lanzendorfer
Another school year is here, and with it, a slew of possible dangers to rattle every anxiety-ridden parent. No parents like to think of their precious baby confronting bullies, harried teachers and classroom overcrowding--not to mention more sinister problems, like drugs and student violence. This school year, parents may have one more worry to add to the list: pesticide exposure.
A study of 89 school districts by Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CAT) found that many schools regularly use pesticides, usually in gardening or for pest control. In most cases, this means that students are exposed to toxic chemicals on a daily basis.
For the past three years, CAT has been calling on school districts in Humboldt, Del Norte, Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties. The group is concerned about three issues: the amount and kinds of pesticides schools use; whether districts comply with the Healthy Schools Act (HSA); and whether schools have an integrated pest management policy, a plan that focuses on long-term prevention of pests using nontoxic methods.
Californians for Alternatives to Toxics decided to do the study because so few schools were complying with the HSA, which requires districts to use the least toxic pesticide practices available. Since the government doesn't seem interested in enforcing the act, CAT, as a watchdog environmental group, decided to see if the schools were in compliance. Most of them weren't.
"The more we talked to the schools, the more we realized they had no idea what they were supposed to be doing," says Jason Beaver, development director at CAT. "As we realized that, we realized there was a need for a study like this."
Californians for Alternatives to Toxics assigns the districts a grade based on their pesticide use. For all the counties, only 21 districts got an A or a B; 27 districts got a C; and 41 got a D or an F.
Overall, Humboldt County had the best results, with 41 percent of districts receiving a B or better. Mendocino County followed with 27 percent of its districts getting good grades. By contrast, not one district in Lake County got above a C.
"But the worst district was Del Norte County, which was adversarial from the beginning," says Beaver. "They didn't respond to the survey. Some districts in Lake County admitted to spraying, but they still responded to the surveys, which is better than not knowing anything at all."
Sonoma County, with the most students and 38 districts, had uneven results. Only Harmony Union Elementary in Occidental got an A, followed closely by Fort Ross Elementary with an A-. Of the remaining 36 districts, 13 got F's and another 12 got D's.
Harmony Union was not surprised the district got a good grade. "Our policy is to never use pesticides under any circumstances," says Superintendent Jane McDonough. "We have a very rural campus with a natural environment, so we leave it alone. We plant native, drought-resistant plants that are not noxious and don't get in our way."
The biggest problem at Harmony Union is poison oak. To eliminate it, the district gets volunteers who aren't allergic to yank the plant up. "There's a number of friendly folks who help us out," says McDonough.
A poor grade from CAT does not necessarily mean a district uses pesticides. The final grade is based on three factors: pesticide use; whether the schools comply with the HSA; and whether they have a pest management policy. A grade of A or B means that the district uses no pesticide, generally complies with the HSA and has an integrated pest management policy. A grade of D or F means the opposite, though failing grades were also given to districts that didn't reply to CAT's requests for information. The median grade of C, however, could mean that the school isn't a pesticide user, but is still missing an HSA requirement or has no integrated pest management policy.
"Alexander Valley Union Elementary scored great for pesticide use since they don't use toxic chemicals," says Beaver. "But they didn't keep good records, so their grade went down to a C-. One thing we see in Sonoma more than in other counties is a lack of record keeping."
When just looking at whether or not a district uses pesticides, Sonoma County's grades improve. The number of A's rise from two to 10, and the number of D's and F's drop to 15.
Children are at particular risk for pesticides. Not only are they smaller and therefore more substantially affected by smaller amounts of chemicals, they have a higher metabolism and so process chemicals faster. In addition, kids have more hand-to-mouth contact than adults do, so whatever they touch is more likely to get in their systems.
Common chemicals used in herbicides and pest sprays have been linked to cancer, endocrine disorders, brain problems and asthma. And because these chemicals affect brain development, low-level, long-term exposure to pesticides may even affect children's intellectual life, resulting in lower cognitive function and behavioral problems like hyperactivity.
"Even before the physiological problems of pesticides were known, [pesticide-exposed] workers reported that they were more agitated, combative and tended to have nightmares," says Marc Lappe, Ph.D., director of the Center for Ethics and Toxics in Gualala. "You see it in the Gulf War vets. It was discounted as post-traumatic stress at first, but it turns out to be a result of organic phosphates. If these are the reports from adults, imagine what these chemicals do to children."
Beyond that, there is what Lappe calls a "black hole" of knowledge about the long-term effects of chemicals on humans, but what scientists do know doesn't look good.
Since receiving their grades, most institutions have been cooperative with some 47 different districts agreeing to work with CAT on developing better pesticide policies. And of course, schools can be concerned with pesticides and still get a bad grade because they didn't follow the HSA or institute an integrated pest management policy. In their effort to run a school, the bureaucracy and rules may have slipped right by them. "The HSA is one of about a billion things they are throwing at us from the state right now," says McDonough. "There are millions of rules, and they are all descriptive and often outdated. It's very difficult to stay current. These days, the schools are struggling with fewer and fewer resources and more and more rules."
Thirteen schools simply didn't respond to the survey, even though CAT contacted them repeatedly and informed the districts that they were required by law to disclose information about their pesticide use. Activists believe that schools don't always realize how serious chemical exposure can be, emphasizing aesthetics over health.
"The biggest problem is that there seems to be this standard that schools can't have a single weed and every pest has to be removed," says Beaver. "But the chemicals they are using to maintain that standard are far less healthy than a few dandelions growing along fence."
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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.