- WASHINGTON, DC (ENS)
- Children may be at serious risk from pesticides used in their schools,
but no one currently knows how great that danger may be, a government investigation
has concluded. The study, released Tuesday by the U.S. senator who commissioned
it, found gaps in government regulations that may be exposing children
to pesticides at a time when their developing bodies are most at risk.
- The report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the
investigative arm of Congress, was completed at the end of November 1999.
It found that parents, educators and government officials know little about
the amount of pesticides being sprayed at schools or how often children
are exposed to them.
- "We are formally releasing that report today, and
I can sum up its findings simply by saying that in this case, what we don,t
know can indeed hurt us, and may in fact be hurting us today, because there
is a lot we don,t know," said Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut
Democrat who asked the GAO to conduct the study.
- "Most notably, the GAO,s investigators learned that
no one seems to have the information I requested, leaving us ill-prepared
to assess this threat, much less protect children from it," said Lieberman.
- "Reading the report, I was struck by the fact that
while we have a national framework for protecting workers from environmental
and health hazards on the job, we have no such system for protecting children
from toxic substances in the classroom," Leiberman said. "You
don,t have to be an A student to know that that is a double standard, one
that deserves our attention."
- The GAO study found that:
- 1) There is no comprehensive, readily-available national
or state-by-state data on the amount and kinds of pesticides being used
in schools today.
- 2) Although the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and
Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) requires pest-control companies to keep records
for two years on the amount and site of pesticide applications, only one
state requires them to report the information.
- 3) There is little information available about illnesses
related to pesticide exposure. The GAO documented 2,300 cases of exposure
at schools from 1993 to 1996, but noted that this information is incomplete
and unreliable because of the lack of record-keeping, and likely understates
how often children are exposed. There was no follow-up information for
more than 40 percent of those 2,300 cases. For the cases where follow-up
did occur, 329 individuals were seen at health care facilities, 15 were
hospitalized, and four were treated in intensive care units.
- 4) Eight states collect information on the use of pesticides
within their states, but only two collect information on pesticides used
in schools. No state collects information on exposure patterns in schools.
- 5) There are no standard criteria for clearly identifying
illnesses linked to pesticide exposure. Misclassification of pesticide
illness is common.
- "This information gap is troubling on a number of
levels," Lieberman said. "We know that children are particularly
vulnerable to the risks associated with pesticides, including elevated
rates of leukemia and brain cancer. So we have every right to be concerned,
and every incentive to take some action. But we don,t know how great that
risk is, because we don,t have any idea how many kids are coming in contact
with these chemicals, or how many are suffering as a result. So it,s hard
to determine the exact extent of the problem or the proper response."
- To begin filling in those blanks, Lieberman, the ranking
Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tuesday urging the agency
to begin collecting and reviewing data on school exposures. He asked the
agency to develop a plan for a comprehensive survey on the use of pesticides
in schools to better gauge the threat to students and educators.
- Lieberman called on the EPA to take immediate steps to
minimize the risk of exposure - starting by providing guidance to pest
control companies and school officials on the relative risks of different
application methods, and setting strong uniform guidelines for notifying
parents and educators before pesticides are used on school grounds.
- EPA officials said today they are aware of the problem
and are collecting data and taking steps to correct the problem. Marcia
Mulkey, director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, noted that
all pesticides must be thoroughly tested for their possible risks to children
and infants before they are approved for the market.
- According to the EPA's pesticide program, more than 3,000
pesticide labels - out of over 17,000 - include information on how, when
and where the chemicals can be used in schools.
- One label reviewed by the GAO stated that school classrooms
should only be treated when students are not present and that all treated
surfaces should be dry before students are allowed to return.
- In a statement, the EPA said it is "vitally important
to call attention to potential risks from pesticides in schools and in
all other places where children may be exposed" and that it would
consider all recommendations by the GAO and Lieberman.
- The EPA has recently begun promoting integrated pest
management as a proactive means of reducing insect damage in school buildings
and on school grounds without heavy use of chemical pesticides. Integrated
pest management is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term
prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques
such as biological control and habitat manipulation.
- Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects
of exposure to chemical pesticides because "pound for pound of body
weight, children breathe more, eat more, and have more rapid metabolisms
than adults," the report notes. Children also play more on floors
and lawns where pesticides are commonly applied, and have more hand to
mouth contact than adults, the report points out.
- Some pesticides warn that children should not be allowed
near sprayed areas until the chemical has completely dried.
- Because the physical and mental systems of children are
still developing, they are at greater risk than adults for long term effects
from pesticide exposure, the study points out. Numerous studies document
that children who suffer chronic or acute exposure to pesticides experience
elevated rates of childhood leukemia, soft tissue sarcoma, and brain cancer,
Leiberman said Tuesday.
- Pesticides can easily be absorbed from exposure through
skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion. One recent study cited by Leiberman
showed that after a single broadcast application in an indoor setting of
chlorpyrifos, a pesticide commonly used in schools, the chemical remained
on children,s toys and hard surfaces for two weeks, resulting in exposure
21 to 119 times above the current recommended safe dose.
- The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported last month
that 53 members of the House and Senate support a bill to block tougher
pesticide standards because not enough "sound science" has been
gathered to justify them.
- All 53 Congress members have individually pressured the
federal government to permit poorly studied uses of dangerous pesticides
under the Section 18 Program, established by the decades-old Federal Insecticide,
Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the Environmental Working Group says. Based
in Washington, DC, the EWG defines itself as a "content provider for
public interest groups and concerned citizens who are campaigning to protect
- The Section 18 Program was created to help farmers facing
"emergency" or "crisis" pest infestations by allowing
use of pesticides in ways that circumvent normal procedures to assess pesticide
usage health impacts. By definition, a Section 18 waiver is a hurried procedure,
allowing pesticides to be used with little sound scientific study of the
potential health effects.
- Emergency exemptions under Section 18 have been granted
for pesticide applications to strawberries 70 times since 1993 (Photo by
Ken Hammond, courtesy ARS) The program has been criticized by Congressional
and GAO investigations in each of the last three decades.
- "For these members, sound science, is just a sound
bite to undermine children,s pesticide protections on behalf of the pesticide
industry," said Todd Hettenbach, who conducted a four-month investigation
of pesticides for the EWG.