BALTIMORE – As many as 16 school districts in Maryland use one or more toxic pesticides believed to cause health problems in children, according to a report released Tuesday by MaryPIRG, the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
In a survey conducted last spring, MaryPIRG contacted all of Maryland’s 24 school districts for information about pesticides used to kill insects and maintain school grounds. Seventeen responded; one, Howard County, reported using no harmful pesticides.
Of the 16, three school districts – Anne Arundel, Dorchester and Prince George’s – reported using at least one “known” or “probable” human carcinogen. Fifteen school districts reported using at least one “possible” carcinogen. Fifteen also reported using one or more pesticides linked with adverse reproductive and developmental effects.
“Pesticides pose a particular threat to children because of their weaker immune systems,” said Lea Johnston, a MaryPIRG spokeswoman. “They can impede their learning and jeopardize their development.”
But Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said there is no cause for alarm.
“What the schools are using right now matches current regulations,” he said. “There is no serious concern about kids being in danger.”
Johnston said although Maryland’s school districts have adopted pest control plans encouraging the reduction of pesticide use, more needs to be done – and fast.
She urged schools to immediately implement a school pesticide law passed last spring by the General Assembly. It’s not scheduled to go into effect until next school year.
The law requires each county school board to adopt a pesticide plan that emphasizes non-chemical ways of reducing pests, such as keeping schools clean.
It also requires that elementary schools notify parents, staff and teachers of any pesticide use at least 24 hours before it happens. Middle and high school students, their parents and teachers may sign onto a registry to be notified prior to pesticide use, the law says.
Allen Abend, chief of the school facilities branch at the Maryland State Department of Education, said much of what’s required in the law is already in place. “The school systems in Maryland have progressed much farther … than most schools around the country,” he said.
Besides calling on schools to implement the pesticide law, MaryPIRG also stressed the need for schools to notify parents and staff before the application of pesticides outdoors.
While the school pesticide law will curb the use of them indoors, Johnston said, there’s nothing in the law about pesticides used on playgrounds, jungle gyms and sidewalks.
Ruth Berlin, co-coordinator of the Maryland Pesticides Network, a coalition supporting pesticide use reductions, called the use of dangerous pesticides in and around schools “reprehensible” and “irresponsible.”
“This is an abominable situation,” Berlin said. “If fields used by the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks can be maintained without herbicides, so can our school grounds.”
State Del. Michael Weir, D-Baltimore and Harford counties, vice chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said he supports limiting the use of dangerous pesticides outdoors – but only if they’re truly harmful.
“I think pesticides are used very infrequently and only when they’re absolutely necessary,” he said. “Some of these chemicals they call toxic aren’t toxic at all.”
Weir said there’s legitimate scientific debate over which chemicals are considered harmful to humans and which are not.
Berlin, of course, sees it differently. “We must say, `No more!’ ” she said. “Our children deserve not to be in danger.” School districts not responding to the survey were Allegany, Baltimore, Calvert, Cecil, Frederick, Wicomico and Worcester counties. -30-