The anti-pesticide crowd tried to scare parents last week with a new report alleging that pesticide use in schools is dangerous for students.
Contrary to its authors’ apparent intent, however, the report should actually serve to reduce any anxiety parents may have about pesticide use.
Using data collected from several federal and state toxic exposure surveillance systems during the period 1998-2002, the researchers reported in the July 27 Journal of the American Medical Association an estimated 1,972 cases of school children allegedly made ill by pesticides -- an alleged incidence rate of 7.4 cases per million children.
The report spurred the Associated Press headline, “Pesticides May be Sickening School Kids.”
But assuming that the report’s figures are anywhere close to being accurate -- and there’s good reason to believe they are not -- they seem to indicate that of all the things parents and students need to worry about, pesticides should be very low on the list.
I did some checking into school injury rates, and it seems that simply going to school is a pretty dangerous thing in general.
According to an analysis of school injuries published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine (April 2001), there were 43,881 school injuries that required emergency department or hospital admission for the years 1992-1996 -- and that was just in one state, Utah. That equates to an injury rate of about 3,300 per million children -- about 445 times greater than the alleged rate for pesticide incidents.
On a nationwide basis, the school injury statistics are much worse. According to a 1998 study in the American Journal of Public Health, “Each year, 3.7 million children suffer a substantial injury at school resulting in an estimated $3.2 billion in medical spending and $115 billion in good health lost.”
It would seem that the mere comparison of 3.7 million school injuries per year versus 394 pesticide-related injuries per year (1,972 injuries from 1998-2002 divided by five years) should quell any over-emphasis on pesticides as a risk in school, but there’s more.
The researchers make the unsubstantiated claim that “these results should be considered low estimates of the magnitude of the problem because many cases of pesticide poisoning are likely not reported to surveillance systems or poison control centers.” In fact, the opposite is more likely the case.
The reported 1,972 cases of children made ill by pesticides are, in fact, largely unsubstantiated. Acknowledging the possibility of false-positives, the researchers stated that, “Given both the nonspecificity of the clinical findings of pesticide poisoning and the lack of a standard diagnostic test, some illnesses temporally related to pesticide exposures may be coincidental and not caused by these exposures.”
That the actual number of children made ill by pesticides is somewhat less than claimed also wouldn’t be surprising since the vast majority of reports of pesticide poisoning (87 percent according to the researchers) come into data collection centers directly from the patients or their relatives and are never verified by experts. Only 13 percent of reports come from physicians treating patients.
The researchers also conveniently overlook the benefits of pesticide use, including the number of injuries avoided by use of disinfectants, insecticides, rodenticides, fungicides, repellants, and fumigants.
The researchers actually stated, “there is a need to reduce pesticide use.” But properly applied pesticides are perfectly safe -- and 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,” said 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.”
The researchers’ bias against pesticides is evidenced by the inclusion as a co-author of long-time pesticide opponent Jerome Blondell of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose “research” on pesticide poisoning was rejected outright by federal court in 1998.
An analysis authored by Blondell alleging that neurological injuries were caused by pesticides was excluded from evidence in a trial because, as the Court stated, “The Blondell Memoranda, consisting of anecdotal information gathered pursuant to a methodology not generally accepted in either the scientific or medical communities as a mechanism to establish a cause and effect relationship between chemical exposure and neurological health problems, lack sufficient probative value to render it appropriate for submission to the [jury].”
Pesticides provide significant health and safety benefits to school children with minimal (that is, near-zero) risk. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to send my kid to school armed with a flyswatter and then to hope for the best.
Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).