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Whenever you hear that the House or Senate has approved something unanimously, your antennae should twitch. It is probably "feel good" legislation. But "feel good" and "do good" are often worlds apart, as this year’s unanimous Senate vote on the School Environmental Protection Act shows.
The act demands, among other things, that schools provide 72 hours’ notice to parents prior to application of pesticides at their children’s schools. At a glance, that hardly seems onerous. But "this is not nearly as cut and dried as it seems," said Michael Potter, professor and urban entomologist at the University of Kentucky,
"Are parents notified when a cleaning agent is used in bathrooms with a certain level of toxicity?" Potter asked. "Are they notified of all ingredients used in glues in arts and crafts or preservatives in a biology class when frogs are dissected?"
"Most people have no idea that many pesticides are extremely potent against pests, with little hazard to humans."
They also don’t realize how precise the applications of pesticides can be. Common techniques such as injecting gel bait directly into crevices leave children without the least chance of exposure.
Fire Ants in a Victory Parade after Senate Vote
Finally, he said, people don’t realize that almost "all of the ingredients used in school pesticides are routinely purchased by householders every day at grocery stores and elsewhere."
Among its SEPA "findings," the Senate claims that "children are more susceptible to hazardous impacts from pesticides than are adults." That’s possibly true for a given pesticide, but not so as a general statement. Children have no innate vulnerability to toxic matter.
Thus, just a few adult vitamins can be fatal to an infant. But "pharmaceutical studies have tended to show adults are usually more sensitive," noted Allan Felsot, a professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at Washington State University
Pesticides undergo tremendous scrutiny, with "at least 120 tests, several of which are designed to specifically look for potential toxicity in young and developing organisms," according to Houston toxicologist Laura Plunkett.
But if kids aren’t especially vulnerable to pesticides, they are to pests.
"Children are more vulnerable because their immune systems aren’t fully developed, and just by their smaller size," according to Jerome Goddard, clinical assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical School. Take the ratio of venom to body weight. There’s a whole lot of difference between a 40-pound kid and a 200-pound man.
Each year, about 50 Americans are stung to death by bees, hornets and wasps. Other insects can kill, such as ticks carrying Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other illnesses. Fire ants kill about 100 Americans annually, forcing 20,000 others to seek treatment.
Improperly applied insecticide may harm your child, these can and do kill.
Mosquito-borne West Nile virus was responsible for at least seven deaths in New York City last year. Cockroaches aren’t just icky, they spread disease through regurgitation and defecation wherever they go. Roaches are considered one of the top two causes of childhood asthma, which in turn is the most common cause for hospitalization and school absences among children.
SEPA, though, in its "findings" blames not pests for increasing childhood asthma rates, but pesticides. All of these bugs when discovered need to be zapped. Fast.
SEPA by definition will delay this by at least three days, and possibly many more. "I assume prenotification is so that parents can respond," Potter said. "When that notification letter comes home, that school’s phone is going to ring."
"It’s very important to deal with pests in prompt fashion and not have a drawn-out public debate."
Delays and notifications increase costs. When Maryland enacted similar legislation in 1998, it added tens of thousands of dollars in expenses to the budgets of individual school systems, yet the state budgeted no money for it.
As a result of such additional costs, Potter says, schools may be forced to search the bargain basement for pest management specialists, translating into poorer pest control and theoretically higher exposure of children to pests and pesticides.
"I wonder," he said, if the Senate "really thought this through."