Far too little is known about the health risks facing children from exposure to pesticides in school, a congressional study concludes, prompting a call for the Environmental Protection Agency to examine the issue.

“This information gap is troubling,” Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said at a Jan. 4 news conference.

“We know that children are particularly vulnerable to risks associated with pesticides, including elevated rates of leukemia and brain cancer. So we have every right to be concerned,” he continued.

Lieberman released a report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that said its investigators could find no credible statistics on the amount of pesticide used in the nation’s 110,000 public schools, nor information about students exposure to pesticides or their health impacts.

Pesticide manufactures and distributors have argued that the chemicals used in schools are safe and are used in accordance with requirements already issued by the EPA. Without use of the chemicals, students could be exposed to dangerous, disease-carrying pests, the industry argues.

But a private advocacy group, the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, has maintained that students frequently are exposed to unhealthy levels of pesticide residues in classrooms and on playgrounds because of spraying by pest control companies.

“All the data available suggest students face a hazard,” said Jay Feldman, the coalition’s executive director, who joined Lieberman at the news conference. Feldman acknowledged that hard data on pesticide use and health risks in schools are sketchy.

Lieberman and Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., are pushing for legislation that would require schools to notify parents before pesticides are to be used in a school and require schools to adopt pest management plans that rely less on toxic chemicals.

EPA, Lieberman said, should take steps to minimize students’ exposure to pesticides through federal guidelines on parent notification and on the use of pesticides in school environments, and begin a “full-scale statistical survey” to determine whether children are at risk because of the accumulated exposure to pesticides

The EPA issued a statement saying 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 the recommendations.

“Federal and local health officials are increasingly concerned about children’s exposure to toxics,” said Kevin Adler, editor of Indoor Environment Business, a newsletter that covers school environmental issues. “Since pesticides contain toxic chemicals, they should receive more scrutiny.”

Adler added that when lead-contaminated soil is removed from around schools and day care sites, the residue of older pesticides, now banned, would be removed, too.

The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act regulates the use of pesticides in the United States, but there are no specific provisions in the law about the use of pesticides in schools. More than 3,000 pesticide labels include provisions for how, when, and where the pesticides should be used in schools, but these provisions generally do not afford any more protection for school children than any other groups, such as hospital or nursing home patients.

Comprehensive nationwide data on the amount of pesticide use in the nation’s K-12 schools is unavailable, the report said, because the federal government has collected no such data, and only one state—Louisiana—requires its school districts to report the amount of pesticides they use.

Data on short- and long-term effects linked to pesticide exposure are limited as well, the report said. Though information obtained from the American Association of Poison Control Centers shows that from 1993 to 1996, about 2,300 pesticide-related exposures at schools were reported, there are questions about the completeness and reliability of the data because some cases of pesticide exposure are not reported—and outcomes are not known for more than 40 percent of the reported cases.

EPA and a number of states have taken initiatives over the last decade to reduce the use of pesticides in schools through “integrated pest management” including making structural repairs to prevent pests from getting into a building, improving sanitation, using baits and traps where possible, and using the least-toxic chemicals when pesticides are necessary.

Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, and West Virginia require schools to adopt integrated pest management. Montana law encourages school districts to implement integrated pest management on a voluntary basis.

Maryland and Texas are the only states to require parent notification in advance of pesticide use, although seven other states—Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—require schools to provide that information when requested by a parent, according to GAO.

The full GAO report, titled “Pesticides: Use, Effects, and Alternatives to Pesticides in Schools” (RCED-00-17), can be downloaded in PDF format from the agency’s web site. n

Links:

General Accounting Office, 441 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20548; phone (202)512-6000, fax (202) 512-6061, web http://www.gao.gov.

Environmental Protection Agency, Ariel Rios Building, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20460; phone (202) 260-2090, web http://www.epa.gov.

National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, 701 E Street SE #200, Washington, DC 20003; phone (202) 543-5450, fax (202) 543-4791, eMail info@beyondpesticides.org, web http://www.ncamp.org.

Indoor Environment Business, 7920 Norfolk Ave., #900, Bethesda, MD 20814; phone (301) 913-0115, fax (301) 913-0119, eMail agoldstein@iaqpubs.com, web http://www.iaqpubs.com