Fall 2000

Report Documents Pesticide Poisoning at Schools
School Pesticide Policy Web Page

Report Documents Pesticide Poisoning at Schools

Children are exposed and harmed when pesticides are used at school, according to a new report, “Unthinkable Risk,” released today by the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). The report documents nearly 100 actual incidents, and cites additional reviews showing that literally thousands of children and school staff have been sickened by pesticide exposures at schools around the country.

“This report should be a call to action to parents, school administrators, and policy makers everywhere as school districts are beginning their spring spray schedules,” according to report author Becky Riley. “Our society has acted to get other environmental hazards, such as lead, asbestos, and cigarette smoke, out of our nation’s schools, but children are still being widely exposed to, and harmed by, toxic pesticides in classrooms and on school grounds,” Riley noted.

Among the key findings of the report:

• Thousands of people have reported illness related to pesticide exposures at school. Common symptoms of exposure include headaches, dizziness, respiratory distress, nausea, sore throats, and rashes and skin irritation. School pesticide exposures have also been linked to serious and life-threatening conditions, including a near-fatal acute poisoning, anaphylactic reactions, asthma attacks, and abnormal heart rhythms.

• Pesticides can be surprisingly persistent, both indoors and out. Pesticide and solvent vapors can persist in indoor air for weeks or even years. Pesticide residues can contaminate indoor surfaces, and can remain in carpets and dust for months or years. Pesticides can also persist outdoors in soil for weeks or years. Pesticides in some weed-killers commonly used at schools can last from 1 to 5 years in the soil.

• Children can be exposed to (and made ill from) lingering vapors or residues of pesticides used at school even if the chemicals were applied hours, days, or even weeks earlier.

• Children can be exposed to pesticides in many ways, including by breathing vapors or dusts, absorbing residues through their skin, or ingesting residues by hand to mouth contact.

• Children and school staff have been made ill from pesticides even when they were applied legally and according to label directions.

“I can personally attest to the fact that pesticides pose health risks when they are used in school settings,” said Marcia Clark, a school counselor at Wilsonville Primary School in Oregon. “I was a recent victim, as were others at the school where I work. Just this past February, one wing of our school was sprayed over a weekend with pesticides in an effort to control ants. One teacher had an immediate asthma attack upon entering the school, and also developed blisters on her tongue and gums. Other staff developed nausea, eye irritation, and headaches. After I worked in one of the affected classrooms for a half-hour, I had a pounding headache and my voice was hoarse. Two days later, I had to miss a day of work to recuperate. By mid-week, over half the students in one first grade class went home with ‘strep throat’ symptoms,” Clark related.

“Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of toxic exposures,” according to Eric Dover, MD and President-elect of Physicians for Social Responsibility of Oregon. “They cannot detoxify or excrete certain toxic chemicals as well as adults can. That is one reason why physicians prescribe lower doses of medications for children,” Dover noted. “Many commonly used pesticides are nerve poisons,” Dover continued. “Scientists now believe that exposure to nerve poisons at certain critical stages in development can permanently affect brain function,” he added. He also pointed to recent studies that have found links between home and garden pesticide use and elevated rates of several common childhood cancers. “It just doesn’t make sense to use these toxic chemicals at school, exposing children and taking these chances with their health,” Dover concluded.

Maye Thompson, RN, and President of the District 1 Oregon Nurses Association, agrees. “As a mother and a nurse, I am very disturbed to think that when I send my children off to school, I might be sending them into a classroom or onto a playing field that has been sprayed with chemicals that can make them sick, affect their brains and learning ability, or even cause cancer,” Thompson said.

“As this new report shows, pesticide residues can remain in soil or carpeting for a surprisingly long time,” Thompson noted. “Young children roll on the ground and play in dirt and even put things in their mouths. That’s what kids do. School grounds and school classrooms are not the place to be using hazardous chemicals,” Thompson added. She explained that sanitation is a better way to control most indoor ‘pests,’ and no toxic residues remain to contaminate the environment. Outdoors, Thompson believes that the priority should be children’s health and safety, not what the grass looks like or whether there are weeds in the shrub beds.

The recommendations in NCAP’s report call on school districts everywhere to adopt non-toxic pest control measures, and policies to minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides. “Pesticides should be used only as a last resort, if pests pose an imminent health and safety hazard, and if other control alternatives are not available,” Riley stressed. “Fortunately, schools don’t have to choose between pests and pesticides – many safer pest control methods are available,” she noted.”

“Schools also need to provide advance notification if pesticides are used,” Clark added. “It is our right to know,” she emphasized. “Too often, parents and school staff are not notified about pesticide applications and warning notices are not posted. If we had been notified in advance, we could have taken precautions. I would never have worked with children in that room if I had known it had been treated with toxic chemicals,” Clark said. “The fumes were still strong enough to make me and other adults very ill. Children should not have been exposed. This is only common sense,” she continued. Clark also noted that most of the parents of children who were taken out of school with sore throats that week probably still have no idea that their children were exposed to toxic pesticides. “That is wrong,” she said.

Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) works to protect people and the environment by advancing healthy solutions to pest problems

The full text of the Unthinkable Risk report is available here.


School Pesticide Policy Web Page

Numerous localities have chosen to adopt school pesticide policies or programs that require a school to use integrated pest management, prohibit the use of toxic pesticides, and/or provide prior notification of a pesticide application.

Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP has developed a website that identifies over 142 localities that are known (or thought) to have policies or programs regarding integrated pest management, pesticide bans, and right-to-know. It includes links to summaries of policies, local contact information, and links to websites of grassroots pesticide activists working on the school program.

The website is updated regularly, so if you do not see a school on the list but know that it has a policy/program in place, let NCAMP know. Also, feedback on the success or failure of schools’ programs is welcomed, so that we can make the website can become a valuable guide to school pesticide policies across the country.

The new webpage is part of Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP report on local school pesticide policies. This report on local policies will be similar to the Schooling of State Pesticides Laws: Review of State Pesticide Laws Regarding Schools, Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP, released in 1999, except this new report will not only identify where policies and/or programs have been adopted, but also look into implementation and enforcement of the programs.

For additional information, contact Kagan Owens, Program Director, Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP), 701 E Street, S.E., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20003, 202-543-5450 voice 202-543-4791 fax;


Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.