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Congress Working Hard to Make Schools Safe for Roaches and Rodents

The U.S. Senate this week acted to make schools safer for cockroaches and other pests. A bill promoted by anti-pesticide activists and agreed to by the cowering pesticide industry sailed through Senate approval.

If enacted, the legislation would require schools to tell parents what pesticides they are using and when, would prohibit use of pesticides in areas where kids congregate, prohibit some pesticides from being used in areas within 24 hours of a child's presence and require states to develop pest-management plans for their schools that don't involve pesticides.

Robert M. Rosenberg of the pesticide industry's National Pest Management Association said the proposed rules are "responsible and workable."

Responsible? Only if you consider terrorism responsible.

Workable? Let's just say the proposed rules only have to work until the anti-pesticide activists can get the products banned altogether.

The legislation's real purpose is to terrorize parents and gin up demand for a total ban on use of pesticides in schools.

The legislation is descended from a bill first introduced in 1999 by New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, both Democrats. At the press conference announcing the bill, I asked Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, a well-known anti-pesticide activist trotted out as a scientific expert by Mr. Torricelli, to cite proof of the danger of the pesticides in question.

In the aftermath of the 1993 National Research Council report on children and pesticides, Dr. Landrigan publicly admitted that "no disease has ever been documented that stems from legal applications of pesticides." Reminding Dr. Landrigan of his earlier statement, I asked him what changed since then.

Dr. Landrigan fumbled for an answer. Mr. Torricelli prompted the "scientific expert" to mention a study supposedly published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reporting that children exposed to pesticides in their homes had four times more leukemia than those not exposed.

But I couldn't find such a study or any similar study. I found instead a study in Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

That study reviewed 31 studies about pesticide use and childhood cancer conducted between 1970 and 1996.

The study found that a causal relationship between pesticide exposure and childhood cancer is far from proven — not a surprising result given that pesticides must pass a battery of 120 tests before being approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The lack of scientific data supporting the idea that pesticides pose a threat to children no doubt helped California Gov. Gray Davis' decide to veto legislation requiring school districts to notify parents of pesticide use. And California can hardly be considered a slouch on the regulation of chemicals.

Properly applied pesticides are safe. More importantly, pesticides — including disinfectants, rodenticides, insecticides and herbicides — are necessary. Our children's health often depends on pesticide application. Children face serious health threats in schools from cockroaches, fire ants, bees, wasps, mosquitoes, poison oak and ivy, rats and mice.

"It is not as though we were sending airplanes to fog the area around a school each time we treat for cockroaches," says Dan LaHart, environmental-issues program manager for the Anne Arundel County, Md., public schools. "Instead we take a hypodermic needle with a gel bait and inject it right into the cracks and crevices when a roach problem exists."

Before the Maryland legislature passed the School Pesticide Notification Act in 1998, that would have been a 15-minute job. Thanks to the new law, though, it now takes about a week and mounds of paperwork before the same gel bait can be injected. Notifying parents costs schools $32,000 a year.

More important than the cost is the potential impact on children's safety and health. Cockroach feces is suspected of being a major factor in the recent epidemic of childhood asthma.

Despite successful cockroach extermination and rigorous cleaning, cockroach allergen can still be present in levels high enough to cause disease, according to John Hopkins University researchers. The researchers reported allergen levels fell by 77 to 91 percent in areas treated with insecticides. The answer to controlling cockroach droppings is to prevent them from accumulating in the first place.

Appropriate use of pesticides has helped us achieve the highest standard of living ever. From increasing agricultural crop yields to preventing or halting the spread of insect-borne disease, we depend greatly on these invaluable tools.

A conspicuous presence at the press conference and lobbying group for the new Senate legislation was the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, an extreme, anti-pesticide activist group. As part of its campaign to rid the world of pesticides, NCAMP has led the charge to force schools to scare parents prior to pesticide use.
 
The pesticide industry should be ashamed of itself for thinking it can cut a deal with activists whose mission is to end the use of its products — a loss we can’t afford.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of  JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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