Pesticide Exposure Threatens Children at School

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 5, 2000 (ENS) - Children may be at serious risk from pesticides used in their schools, but no one currently knows how great that danger may be, a government investigation has concluded. The study, released Tuesday by the U.S. senator who commissioned it, found gaps in government regulations that may be exposing children to pesticides at a time when their developing bodies are most at risk.

The report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, was completed at the end of November 1999. It found that parents, educators and government officials know little about the amount of pesticides being sprayed at schools or how often children are exposed to them.

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Senator Lieberman presents the GAO report Tuesday (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"We are formally releasing that report today, and I can sum up its findings simply by saying that in this case, what we donít know can indeed hurt us, and may in fact be hurting us today, because there is a lot we donít know," said Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who asked the GAO to conduct the study.

"Most notably, the GAOís investigators learned that no one seems to have the information I requested, leaving us ill-prepared to assess this threat, much less protect children from it," said Lieberman.

"Reading the report, I was struck by the fact that while we have a national framework for protecting workers from environmental and health hazards on the job, we have no such system for protecting children from toxic substances in the classroom," Leiberman said. "You donít have to be an A student to know that that is a double standard, one that deserves our attention."

The GAO study found that:

1) There is no comprehensive, readily-available national or state-by-state data on the amount and kinds of pesticides being used in schools today.

2) Although the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) requires pest-control companies to keep records for two years on the amount and site of pesticide applications, only one state requires them to report the information.

3) There is little information available about illnesses related to pesticide exposure. The GAO documented 2,300 cases of exposure at schools from 1993 to 1996, but noted that this information is incomplete and unreliable because of the lack of record-keeping, and likely understates how often children are exposed. There was no follow-up information for more than 40 percent of those 2,300 cases. For the cases where follow-up did occur, 329 individuals were seen at health care facilities, 15 were hospitalized, and four were treated in intensive care units.

4) Eight states collect information on the use of pesticides within their states, but only two collect information on pesticides used in schools. No state collects information on exposure patterns in schools.

5) There are no standard criteria for clearly identifying illnesses linked to pesticide exposure. Misclassification of pesticide illness is common.

"This information gap is troubling on a number of levels," Lieberman said. "We know that children are particularly vulnerable to the risks associated with pesticides, including elevated rates of leukemia and brain cancer. So we have every right to be concerned, and every incentive to take some action. But we donít know how great that risk is, because we donít have any idea how many kids are coming in contact with these chemicals, or how many are suffering as a result. So itís hard to determine the exact extent of the problem or the proper response."

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Children are more vulnerable because they often play in areas where pesticides are commonly applied, like lawns (Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
To begin filling in those blanks, Lieberman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tuesday urging the agency to begin collecting and reviewing data on school exposures. He asked the agency to develop a plan for a comprehensive survey on the use of pesticides in schools to better gauge the threat to students and educators.

Lieberman called on the EPA to take immediate steps to minimize the risk of exposure - starting by providing guidance to pest control companies and school officials on the relative risks of different application methods, and setting strong uniform guidelines for notifying parents and educators before pesticides are used on school grounds.

EPA officials said today they are aware of the problem and are collecting data and taking steps to correct the problem. Marcia Mulkey, director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, noted that all pesticides must be thoroughly tested for their possible risks to children and infants before they are approved for the market.

According to the EPA's pesticide program, more than 3,000 pesticide labels - out of over 17,000 - include information on how, when and where the chemicals can be used in schools.

pesticides

The EPA does not require pesticides to be labeled with specific information about school applications (Two photos by Tim McCabe, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
One label reviewed by the GAO stated that school classrooms should only be treated when students are not present and that all treated surfaces should be dry before students are allowed to return.

In a statement, the EPA said it is "vitally important to call attention to potential risks from pesticides in schools and in all other places where children may be exposed" and that it would consider all recommendations by the GAO and Lieberman.

The EPA has recently begun promoting integrated pest management as a proactive means of reducing insect damage in school buildings and on school grounds without heavy use of chemical pesticides. Integrated pest management is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control and habitat manipulation.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of exposure to chemical pesticides because "pound for pound of body weight, children breathe more, eat more, and have more rapid metabolisms than adults," the report notes. Children also play more on floors and lawns where pesticides are commonly applied, and have more hand to mouth contact than adults, the report points out.

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Some pesticides warn that children should not be allowed near sprayed areas until the chemical has completely dried
Because the physical and mental systems of children are still developing, they are at greater risk than adults for long term effects from pesticide exposure, the study points out. Numerous studies document that children who suffer chronic or acute exposure to pesticides experience elevated rates of childhood leukemia, soft tissue sarcoma, and brain cancer, Leiberman said Tuesday.

Pesticides can easily be absorbed from exposure through skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion. One recent study cited by Leiberman showed that after a single broadcast application in an indoor setting of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide commonly used in schools, the chemical remained on childrenís toys and hard surfaces for two weeks, resulting in exposure 21 to 119 times above the current recommended safe dose.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported last month that 53 members of the House and Senate support a bill to block tougher pesticide standards because not enough "sound science" has been gathered to justify them.

All 53 Congress members have individually pressured the federal government to permit poorly studied uses of dangerous pesticides under the Section 18 Program, established by the decades-old Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the Environmental Working Group says. Based in Washington, DC, the EWG defines itself as a "content provider for public interest groups and concerned citizens who are campaigning to protect the environment."

The Section 18 Program was created to help farmers facing "emergency" or "crisis" pest infestations by allowing use of pesticides in ways that circumvent normal procedures to assess pesticide usage health impacts. By definition, a Section 18 waiver is a hurried procedure, allowing pesticides to be used with little sound scientific study of the potential health effects.

strawberries

Emergency exemptions under Section 18 have been granted for pesticide applications to strawberries 70 times since 1993 (Photo by Ken Hammond, courtesy ARS)
The program has been criticized by Congressional and GAO investigations in each of the last three decades.

"For these members, Ďsound scienceí is just a sound bite to undermine childrenís pesticide protections on behalf of the pesticide industry," said Todd Hettenbach, who conducted a four-month investigation of pesticides for the EWG.

The EWG report is online at: http://www.ewg.org/pub/home/reports/killerweeds/press-release.html. The GAO report is available at: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/rc00017.pdf