January 1, 2013

Concern over pesticide use at schools rises

Parents are becoming more aware as some schools in the state are not moving to reduce pesticide use.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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