Until she read a newspaper article about pesticide use on school grounds, Marla Zando of Scarborough was unaware that chemicals used on playgrounds or ballfields could hurt children.
“I really, really never had thought about it,” she said. “And I sort of think of myself as being environmentally aware,” but “wow, it was really eye-opening. I really was clueless, very, very clueless.
“Kids love to play in the dirt,” said Zando, the mother of a 4-year-old son. “You don’t know when (pesticides) are there; you can’t see them. I find it very scary.”
Zando began asking questions of physicians, members of the town council, even bird watchers — people she knew would be knowledgeable about the subject — to find out about synthetic pesticides and their potential health effects.
Numerous studies have linked pesticide use at certain levels to a variety of learning disabilities, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, cancers and developmental problems, especially in younger children.
“Children are still developing,” said Zando. Chemicals “can affect growth and development,” and people need to be educated about the health risks of these substances, she said.
The use of chemicals on school properties and other public areas has become a matter of growing public concern in a number of Maine communities. In Camden, Castine, Ogunquit, Brunswick and Scarborough, ordinances or policies have been approved that call for bans, restrictions or reductions in the use of synthetic pesticides and a transition toward organic alternatives or horticultural practices that do not rely on traditional chemical treatments, said Zando.
Zando is now a member of the Pesticide Management Advisory Committee in Scarborough.
The town council passed an organic policy in 2011, meaning Scarborough is early on in the process of restricting chemical treatments and beginning to phase out their use on public properties, most notably in areas used by children.
“It was as close to a full ban as we could get,” Zando said. The measure “does allow for waivers, in cases of emergency,” she said, adding that there is no simple definition for what would constitute an emergency.
SCHOOLS USE CHEMICALS
More than half of 200 schools surveyed in the state still use chemicals on school yards and athletic fields, even though state law requires that they move toward reducing pesticides and develop an integrated pest management plan, a New England environmental group has reported.
The Toxics Action Center, a New England grassroots nonprofit organization, studied the schools — which represent less than 10 percent of Maine’s districts — in part because the state had not conducted its own survey in a decade, said Tracie Konopinski, Maine community organizer for the group’s Portland office and author of the report, “A Call for Safer School Grounds: A Survey of Pesticide Use on K-12 Public School Grounds in Maine.”
In 2000, a state Department of Agriculture study of pesticide use on school grounds showed that almost one-third of elementary and high schools were still using chemical pesticides and herbicides to control insects, weeds or other plants, Konopinski said. That report had a more broad-based sample group, she acknowledged, but the center’s survey encompasses more than 200 schools and nearly 100 municipalities.
Compared with the earlier state survey, the study by Toxics Action Center, which helps local communities deal with toxins, reveals a “shocking” increase of pesticide use, Konopinski said.
This is an educational issue as well as an environmental one, she said.
In Maine, pest control was not the most common reason reported by schools for spraying chemicals, the survey found. “Rather, schools cited aesthetic reasons, such as needing to get rid of dandelions and brush on athletic fields, reducing broad-leaf weeds around the edges of school buildings and playgrounds, and the reduction of weeds in school gardens,” the survey said.
Konopinski said that allowing cosmetic considerations to override safety is “inadequate protection.”
Part of the challenge is that no one knows just how much exposure — if any — is acceptable or tolerable for children. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicity and safety levels in pesticide exposure “are based on an adult male,” Konopinski said. That should lead municipalities and school districts to exercise even greater care and caution in the use of toxic materials where children play, she said.
The center is calling on the state Legislature to strengthen laws, from instituting a complete ban on pesticide use on school properties and endorsing stronger enforcement of integrated pest management to providing more effective notification to parents when chemicals are to be used.
2011 BILL TO BAN FAILED
In 2011, a bill was introduced in the Legislature that, in effect, would have banned pesticide use, including to control weeds, insects, rodents and plant disease on school grounds. The bill failed, and the Legislature instead directed the Maine Board of Pesticides Control to evaluate the use of pesticides on school grounds and to develop “best management practices” with an emphasis on minimizing human exposure to pesticides.
The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry disputes the Toxics Action Center’s survey. Department officials initially declined to be interviewed or respond to questions about the report, aside from emailing a news release to the Press Herald.
Walter Whitcomb, the agency commissioner, said in the release, “The advocacy group misses the point that Maine continues to work hard on this issue and is recognized as a national leader in balancing the need to minimize pesticide risks against the risks posed by harmful pests.”
The Maine Board of Pesticides Control has been reviewing pesticide management practices for the past 18 months, said board director Henry Jennings, who was given permission to speak to the media several days after the Agriculture Department’s emailed response.
“Pesticides are allowed to be used on school grounds,” he said, but the state advises districts to “minimize exposure and (limit) use as much as possible” and to use chemicals “very carefully and keep people away (from sprayed areas) as long as possible.”
Although the state cannot compel districts to ban spraying or even limit the use of chemical or synthetic versus “natural” pesticides, he said, it does promote the idea that when it comes to pesticide spraying, the equation is risk equals toxicity times exposure.
TAKING RISK INTO ACCOUNT
Konopinski, however, said the risk to children over time from repeated exposure to various chemicals isn’t being taken into account. The state’s formula, she said, “doesn’t quite make sense with the newer science that’s out there.”
Other states, such as New York and Connecticut, have enacted statewide bans on pesticides on school properties, Konopinski said.
Maine’s “best management practices” lists as its No.1 goal: “Reduce human pesticide exposure.”
But of nine bullet points leading up to that goal, seven assume the use of pesticides, including minimizing pesticide use, applying chemicals when school is not in session and keeping people off treated areas for as long as possible.
“The goal is great,” said Konopinski. “But it requires a plan and benchmarks. That’s what we want to see.”
Staff Writer North Cairn can be reached at 791-6325 or at: