Drenched in Poison

Are Tucson schools putting students at risk?

Think of pesticides, and you probably conjure images of aerosol cans, Roach Motels or crop dusters drenching fields in toxic mists.

But you might also want to think of asthma, of leukemia, of attention deficit disorder and thwarted child development. When it comes to kids, pesticides are increasingly linked to these and other serious illnesses.

Such concerns make pesticide reduction or removal crucial around homes and schools. And that is the impetus behind a movement called "integrated pest management." Better known as IPM, it's a fancy way of saying you can effectively control bugs and rodents through maintenance and awareness rather than potent poisons.

We're not talking rocket science; IPM involves common-sense steps such as removing food and water sources, sealing cracks where bugs like to hide, reducing vegetation near buildings and blocking bug entrance routes around doors and windows. Taking these simple steps, schools can actually reduce pesticide use by 90 percent.

Which raises the question: If this approach is so straightforward, why are Tucson's schools so slow to catch on?

Local districts cite a shortage of funds and manpower. Indeed, there are upfront costs associated with IPM, such as training, installation of insect barriers and inspection upgrades.

However, proponents argue that IPM results in safer schools--and long-term savings. "It is simply the most cost-effective way of managing pests," says Dr. Dawn Gouge, an urban entomologist with the University of Arizona's Maricopa Agricultural Center, and a leader of the Arizona Children's Environmental Health Coalition.

Once an IPM system is established, districts start saving money formerly budgeted for pest-control companies. "And nearly every time IPM is used," Gouge says, "there's a drastic reduction in the amount of pesticide use."

Several recent studies highlight the importance of that shift. They reveal that children are particularly susceptible to pesticides because, at play, they come into contact with grounds that have been sprayed. Another reason is that children actually inhale more air per their body weight than adults.

These factors are becoming clear, says Gouge, as pesticide standards and research traditionally geared to adults are increasingly focused upon children. One such study, by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, discovered pesticides among nearly 300 chemicals found in newborns' umbilical cords.

Another study, led by a doctor with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found a jump in childhood illness caused by school pesticides. Perhaps even more worrisome, researchers noted that the long-term effects of such exposure simply aren't known.

"Some of the new data is shocking," says Gouge. "In the last three years, a plethora of scientific reports have linked pesticides with (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), with leukemia and asthma."

This issue hasn't escaped the attention of state leaders. For example, Arizona now requires a 72-hour notice at schools prior to pesticide spraying. At the same time, Arizona's Department of Health Services has been analyzing the effects of reduced pesticide use on children with asthma.

Each year, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality also provides $10,000 for Gouge's IPM program. With additional federal funds, the program is slowly spreading to schools throughout the state.

School districts make the first step by contacting Gouge. Then she dispatches a team to inventory a pilot school from top to bottom, followed by ongoing support and advice.

With Gouge's help, Phoenix-area standouts such as the Mesa and Kyrene school districts have drastically reduced pesticide use. But unfortunately, most of Arizona's roughly 200 school districts continue a watered-down version of IPM, often laced with traditional spraying.

While Tucson's school districts report using some form of IPM, generally through private companies such as Terminix, Gouge says only TUSD has participated in her program. And even then, Tucson's largest district implemented the protocol only at one eastside elementary school.

Some three years after the program started, TUSD has dropped the ball. That's according to Dr. Carl Olson, a UA entomologist and Tucson's IPM point man. He calls the TUSD effort "disappointing," hobbled by a piecemeal approach. "The unfortunate thing," Olson says, "was not getting the whole district in on it, and not getting everyone on the same page to fix the things we said should be fixed."

He's critical of the schools' efforts to block insect or rodent access, saying that "thresholds are often bad or the door sweeps are pieces of crap, because they put in the cheapest garbage they can." And that allows an entry way for plenty of bugs. By contrast, state-of the-art door sweeps would "keep the scorpions out, and keep the insects from coming in."

Olson also recommends more awareness by maintenance staff. "People don't want to add to their workload," he says, "but if you're a custodian, you do custodial work the right way, and you solve all of these other problems."

For example, "If you have mops, you hang them upside down on hangers in your custodial closet, instead of leaving them on the ground where they're going to present places for rodents or cockroaches to hide."

But that critique rankles Reginald McClendon, TUSD's building and grounds manager. He says the district does practice integrated pest management via custodial inspectors, updated cleanliness guidelines and a $50,000 annual contract with Terminix.

Still, he calls it an uphill battle "when you have limited resources and limited staff, and you're trying to make sure that you're developing a sanitary and safe environment. We're doing the best we can with what we've got."

While districts such as Kyrene have cut pesticide use by 90 percent, however, McClendon can't cite any similar decrease under TUSD's efforts. "I don't have those stats," he says, "because that question has never been posed."

Attempts to contact Terminix for comment were unsuccessful.

For his part, Olson has doubts whether many private pest-control companies are truly using the integrated approach. "Unfortunately, IPM can be twisted," he says. "And a lot of them say, 'Oh, we do IPM. We monitor--and then we spray.'"

Either way, schools adopting the bona fide IPM approach will eventually save money while protecting students, says Dr. Gouge. And they'll also find themselves on the vanguard of a larger social change: "The idea of protecting our environment by drenching it in chemicals," she says, "is going by the wayside."

Hopefully, so is this unnecessary risk to the nation's children.

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