Parents want warning if schools use pesticides Exterminators, principals oppose bill

March 19, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

An emotional debate over the safety of chemical pesticides has entered Maryland's classrooms.

A coalition of parents, teachers and environmental activists is pressing for state legislation requiring schools and day care centers to give parents and staff written notice before using pesticides or herbicides around children.

"Parents have a right to know," says Ruth Berlin, an Annapolis psychotherapist who led a campaign to curb open-air spraying for mosquitoes in Anne Arundel County a few years ago. She says her 11-year-old son, Jesse Rifkin, went into an allergic shock after an unannounced pesticide treatment of the religious day school he attended.

But the measure, which gets a hearing before a House committee today, faces stiff opposition from most school administrators. Principals consider it a costly headache to send notes home in every child's backpack whenever they want to rid their buildings of roaches or bees.

The bill also has drawn the ire of exterminators and chemical manufacturers, who insist that pest control methods and materials have become much safer in recent years. Industry representatives say they fear Maryland's notice bill is the first step in a nationwide crusade to ban the use of pesticides in public places.

"Now we're in a holy war," said Joel Hyman, a Westminster exterminator who is president of the Maryland Pest Control Association and a parent. "We're being pounded as villains."

Eyeing Maryland as a bellwether state, national groups have joined the lobbying fray in Annapolis.

"Maryland is at the front of the curve, but this is a movement that is picking up steam," said Jay Feldman, director of the National Coalition Against Misuse of Pesticides in Washington, which supports the notification bill.

Health experts have said that young children are at greater risk of harm from low-level pesticide exposure than are adults. But only a handful of states requires that notice be given before applying pesticides in public schools, or regulate their use.

In Maryland, public school administrators say they have sharply reduced their spraying in recent years. Most voluntarily practice "integrated pest management," which calls for applying chemicals only when needed.

"Not too many schools are spraying baseboards or setting off foggers or doing widespread applications anymore," said Mary Ellen Setting, chief of pesticide regulation for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Sealing holes and cracks through which bugs and rodents can crawl prevents infestations, and the need to spray.

"Almost all parents have pesticides at home that probably are more dangerous than the pesticides being used in schools," noted Gene Harrington, lobbyist for the National Pest Control Association, based in Northern Virginia.

But advocates of the notice bill say that pesticide use varies widely among localities. In Baltimore, according to Berlin, officials say they spray only once or twice a year, while Prince George's County reports 2,243 applications a year in its nearly 200 schools -- an annual rate of 10 or 12 treatments per school.

"Generally, we want to limit pesticides as much as we can when there are [safer] alternatives," said Del. Joan B. Pitkin, a Prince George's County Democrat and the bill's chief sponsor.

The bill would require principals to notify parents, teachers and staff 48 hours before a pesticide application or within 24 hours of an emergency treatment. Schools also must send home information on each pesticide to be used.

Schools routinely add to student backpacks notices on everything from head lice infestations to Little League registration, noted Carolyn Roeding, legislative vice president of the state PTA.

But school boards favor instead a regulation proposed last year by the state agriculture department that would require schools to notify only those parents who ask to be placed on a registry.

The proposal follows guidelines offered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered the rule withdrawn last month after he endorsed universal notification.

The House notice bill faces an uncertain future, despite the support of the governor and a majority of delegates. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

Del. Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, has drafted a bill that would limit pesticide use by mandating "integrated pest management" in public schools.

But Berlin and other advocates counter that many parents don't know enough to ask that they be notified.

"If you don't know there's a potential risk here," Berlin said, "why would you ask?"

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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