Not the place for `pesticides'

The Education Beat

Guidelines: A report claims a typographical error put chemicals into schools' arsenals despite a law aimed at protecting youth from the sprays.

September 26, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

DURING A fire drill last week, staff and pupils at Dublin Elementary School in Harford County encountered a swarm of yellow jackets just outside the cafeteria.

Because insect stings can be fatal, Principal Robin Payne immediately placed the infested area off-limits and arranged for an emergency pesticide application. On Friday, letters went home with all of Dublin's children informing parents of the spraying.

Pesticides can be fatal, too, and not just to yellow jackets. Toxic chemicals in the sprays used to contain or kill pests can cause cancer, nervous system injury and lung disease. They are harmful to people with asthma and to pregnant women.

So when Payne sent those letters home, she was complying with a six-year-old Maryland law grandly named the Integrated Pest Management Act. Designed to protect public school children from exposure to pesticides, the law says, "Pesticides are only to be considered as an option when nontoxic options are unreasonable or have been exhausted."

And the law requires notification of parents whenever pesticides are used at elementary schools, as well as at the beginning of the school year if pesticides are to be used in secondary schools.

Last week, a grass-roots coalition of 25 Maryland organizations issued two reports contending that many schools aren't in compliance with the law and that the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which created the guidelines for implementation, distorted the law's intent.

"The tragedy is that with very few exceptions, there's no need to use pesticides, especially inside schools," said Ruth Berlin, the Maryland Pesticide Network's executive director. "People do it out of habit. It's a lot easier to spray than to caulk or simply take out the vacuum cleaner."

Berlin knows of what she speaks. Her son, Jesse Rifkin, went into allergic shock and almost died after an unannounced pesticide treatment of the religious day school he attended.

These days, most Maryland districts have an "integrated pest management supervisor" charged with complying with state law. "Things have really changed over the years," said Patti Jo Beard, acting director of facilities management in Harford, one of three districts praised in the reports. (The others are Anne Arundel and Montgomery.)

"We used to go in every Friday and bomb the [cafeteria] kitchen. We had a person with the title `pesticide applicator.'"

According to the report, the Department of Agriculture, in writing the guidelines for the new act, distorted its intention by moving one word, "pesticides," in a key sentence. The law says schools are to use "one or more pest control methods, including sanitation, structural repair, nonchemical methods, and, when nontoxic options are unreasonable or have been exhausted, pesticides."

But the guidelines written by the department say schools are to use "one or more pest control methods, including sanitation, structural repair, nonchemical methods, and pesticides, when nontoxic options are unreasonable or have been exhausted."

Flip-flopping the word "pesticides" certainly improved the flow of the sentence, but, Berlin said, "What they did was make pesticides just another tool in the arsenal. The law was written to separate out pesticides."

Mary Ellen Setting, assistant secretary in the department, said there was no intention to deceive. "It was a typographical error that none of us caught." Setting said the wording was changed to the original late last year, but this was long after implementation manuals had been distributed to the school districts.

Setting said those who issued the reports - and the coalition includes such heavyweights as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Maryland State Teachers Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - "are missing the big picture - that we've made great progress in six years of working with the schools under this act."

The next child who suffers an asthma attack after a classroom is sprayed is not likely to be impressed.

Report: Public teachers favor private for their kids

Urban public school teachers are more likely than either urban households or the general public to send their children to private schools, according to a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In Baltimore, 21 percent of all families used private schools in 2000, while 35 percent of public school teachers did. The data derive from the 2000 census.

Due diligence: The Fordham Institute is a strong supporter of school choice, including charter schools.

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