This law’s no pest
A new health law requires schools to notify parents of pesticide use
“Mom, I don’t want to go to school today.”
Sorry, honey, but you’re going.
“But they’re spraying toxic chemicals. Look, here’s a note from the school.”
Such may be the gambit of some future Ferris Bueller trying to get out of school. But he’d probably still be making excuses, thanks to the very legislation that now requires schools to let families know about upcoming pesticide use.
The new state law, known as the Healthy Schools Act (Assembly Bill 2260), is taking effect this school year. It requires schools to give parents annual written notification of all pesticides they plan to use during the upcoming year. The schools must also tell parents of their right to register with the school district to receive 72 hours’ notice before the next application. In addition, districts must also post notices at entrances to schools treated with pesticides 24 hours before and 72 hours after any and all applications.
Proponents of the new act, authored by Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, D-San Francisco, have been holding press conferences lately in cities like San Diego, Sacramento and San Jose to hype the law and encourage parents to seek the 72-hour notice for every spraying, which they believe will lead some schools to cut back on excessive use of possibly harmful herbicides and pesticides and move toward more alternative methods. The new law also requires that the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) train interested personnel in less-toxic pest control methods—collectively known as “integrated pest management,” or IPM.
Last May 16, the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees approved an IPM plan that defined why, how and when it uses pesticides such as Invader HPX 20 (for ants and roaches), Dragnet SFR (roaches and spiders), Delta Dust (ant/roaches) and Round-up Pro (weeds), adding the assurance that no pesticide applications would occur during regular school hours unless the pest presence was deemed more dangerous than the treatment.
“It seems like the law has definitely been a catalyst,” said Rachel Styer, a researcher for the Butte Environmental Council. “It was written with good intentions. … The school districts have expressed interest in learning from the Chico State grounds department and their 80-percent organic techniques for pesticide control.” (Several years ago, the Chico State crew was awarded the governor’s prize for safety.)
In January 1998, the CN&R reported about a Community Legal Information Center’s Environmental Advocates study that found that the CUSD purchased and used enough of the now-discontinued herbicide Surflan—the active ingredient of which is considered a possible human carcinogen—to sterilize 20 million square feet, almost double the school district’s total property. The CLIC-published report—contested by school officials—implied that the schools were heavily dependent on chemicals and that the district “needed improvement.” At the time, some advocates speculated that the extra pesticides were being used in order to maintain funding money.
“We’ve never used much to begin with,” countered Jim Sands, deputy superintendent for the CUSD. “I think that [CLIC] information is wrong. … We were studied by an environmental agency, CalPIRG, several years ago, and they even said we had exceptionally low levels of pesticide use. Today, there’s really not that much need for it, and besides that it’s a costly process.”
Sands explained that the new Health Safety Act should not significantly alter pesticide practice in the CUSD, since the schools have not sprayed during school hours for years now. He doesn’t know quite what to expect from parents who receive the health and information packet, but he says the school sends newsletters every week and certainly has no problem sending pesticide notifications as required by the new law. He says that the minor spraying done for fields and other areas occurs in the early morning or late evening.
Mary Leary, director of maintenance and operations for the CUSD, is in charge of implementing the new legislation. She said that the schools are following the letter of the law and using pesticides only if absolutely necessary. She adds that only two parents have contacted her since the health packet was sent home with students Aug. 30.
“If the school has ants or roaches, we now refer the pesticide [contractor] to the alternate-measures site of the integrated plan offered on the DPG Web site,” she explained. “So far this year we’ve had several requests due to indoor insects, and we’ve only used methods like sticky traps and crevice gels.”
She said that kitchen areas were sprayed on a monthly basis in the past. While the CUSD must adhere to strict state guidelines for the application of outdoor pesticides like Round-up for weeds—reporting the type of spray used, date, location and usage amounts—indoor applications are handled differently. They fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Integrated Pest Management, which does not require the same information.
Even though strict guidelines are now assumed, and local schools keep detailed records of all sprayings, which they contend are few, there is no local monitoring arm of the DPR for indoor spraying. The agency simply requires that licensed pesticide control units register a user report form annually—it used to be monthly—with the DPR, assuming that local schools use state-licensed organizations (which most do).
“They [pesticide operators] have to keep records in case they are audited,” said Butte County Agricultural Commissioner Richard Price. “And they are required by the new law to report usage annually. … If anything, the new law provides closer scrutiny because they have to have a management plan.”
Price said his department has been acting in an advisory capacity for schools, while the DPR works directly with schools to implement the least-toxic pest management alternatives.
“Things are definitely moving in a more educated direction thanks to integrated pest management,” Price says. “There’s a lot of activity, and the people involved are going to seminars and finding out information on alternative methods.”
Price said most of the chemicals used at the schools did not leave lingering residual effects after initial application.
But Kelly Campbell, campaign coordinator for the San Francisco-based Californians for Pesticide Reform, doesn’t see the point in taking chances with any chemicals.
“In general, there are nontoxic and least-toxic alternatives,” she noted. “There have quite a few studies that show that some indoor pesticides don’t dissipate as quickly as we once thought … and when you’re dealing with kids’ health, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Kip Hansen, a maintenance operations manager for CUSD, said that no spraying has been necessary this year thanks to common-sense alternatives.
“Mechanical means have been working so far," he says. "I’ve caulked a few holes because of ants. I’m basically ‘fixing a hole,' like the Beatles song. Another time I moved some garbage cans that were attracting bees away from the kids’ lunch table. It hasn’t been out of hand yet."