Poisoning Our Children

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, February 12, 1999

On a recent Friday afternoon in Bridgeport, Suzanne was leading her fifth graders and a combined kindergarten-first grade class to the school cafeteria for a multi-age, hands-on activity. Before they got to the cafeteria's locked door, a strong odor of pesticides assaulted them. They made a hasty retreat to their classroom. The band practicing in the hallway outside of the cafeteria, however, continued rehearsing there.

At the end of the day, the reading specialist, whose office is right next to the cafeteria, wondered why her eyes were itchy and watering. Suzanne learned from the school custodian that he had questioned the exterminator about spraying pesticides during school hours. He was told that it was okay because the exterminators always spray while children are in school.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unusual. Connecticut has no regulations covering the use of these toxic pesticides in schools. Last year, a Woodbridge parent told Environmental and Human Health, Inc., a private, non-profit organization, about her son's illness which resulted from pesticide-use at his school. This incident raised many questions. As a result, the organization decided to conduct a survey.

Last week, the results, entitled Pest Control Practices in Connecticut Public Schools, were released at a press conference in Hartford. Attorney General Blumenthal attended to lend his support.

More than half of Connecticut's school districts responded to the survey. Bridgeport was not one of them. Eighty-seven percent said they sprayed pesticides indoors, and one-third reported that they sprayed routinely, whether or not pests were present. Urban, suburban and rural school districts applied pesticides to kitchens, cafeterias, locker rooms, classrooms, hallways, children's lunch storage areas and athletic fields.

Eight of the ten routinely-used pesticides are nerve toxins. Designed to poison living things, they have a wide range of unpleasant short-term, as well as debilitating long-term effects. These chemicals mimic hormones used by the human body to control immune, endocrine, reproductive and nervous systems. Common symptoms of pesticide poisoning - headache, nausea, vomiting and fever - may be misdiagnosed because they are so similar to those of the flu and children's normal complaints.

Chlorpyrifos (trade name Dursban), used in some schools, is an organophosphate pesticide which is currently undergoing special review by the EPA because of concerns about its toxicity and widespread use.

Despite federal, state and local education, environment and health agencies which should be protecting our children's welfare, it is currently legal and common practice to apply pesticides while children are in school. Any town employee can spray general-use pesticides. Licensed exterminators can apply more dangerous, restricted-use chemicals. The professionals may be better trained, but the survey found that the school districts using professionals sprayed more often. Some schools were sprayed more than once every month.

At the press conference, Yale Professor John Wargo spoke of the special chemical-injury risks pesticides pose to children because they are growing and their bodily systems change rapidly. Exposures to these chemicals, which are also used on food crops and in pet flea collars, are cumulative. Any pregnant women in these buildings are also at special risk. Many students in urban or agricultural areas may be already suffering from compromised immune systems due to environmental contaminants.

Although these pesticides may have been tested separately by their manufacturers for their effects on healthy adults, no tests have addressed individual or synergistic effects on children.

Environmental and Human Health, Inc. hopes that the attention it has brought to this situation will get parents and teachers to ask questions and express their opinions. The group also recommends that a program of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) be used in schools. This approach uses non-toxic and mechanical methods first and sprays poisons only as a last resort. Among the other recommendations are notification of staff and parents before pesticide-spraying, no spraying while buildings are occupied, and complete record-keeping at each school.

Ending the poisoning of Connecticut's school children should be a no-brainer.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.