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

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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:

ncairn@mainetoday.com

 

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