Pesticide use at schools might cause asthma

Nathan Hall

U.S. children are getting asthma at more than double the rate of two decades ago, according to a Feb. 24 Environmental Protection Agency report.

In Minnesota, scientists and environmentalists said pesticide use within the primary school system is one possible reason for Minnesota’s asthma spike.

According to the EPA report, between 1980 and 1995 more than 6.3 million children were diagnosed with asthma. Explanations for the jump pointed to dust mites, cockroaches, tobacco smoke, ozone, smog and pesticides.

Asthma is the third-ranking cause for hospitalization for children younger than 15, and it caused 266 fatalities in 1996. These hospital stays cost an estimated $3.2 billion per year.

“There’s no definitive science at this point,” said Kathleen Schuler, an environmental scientist for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “There is obviously more study needed on this subject.”

But Schuler said evidence of pesticide harm already exists.

“I don’t think just because it isn’t extensively being studied doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem,” she said. “We’ve already found links between farmers who use these pesticides and higher rates of asthma.”

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spent $35.2 million on its asthma control program. A portion of that program’s funds the Minnesota Health Department’s asthma task force, which works with the American Lung Association of Minnesota.

“It is the official policy of the American Lung Association of Minnesota to support efforts to reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides, herbicides or other asthma or allergy triggers in homes, schools and workplaces,” said Robert Moffitt, the group’s communication manager, in a prepared statement.

The joint program, the Healthy Learners Asthma Initiative, tries to determine why inner-city minority youth are disproportionately at risk.

The asthma initiative has become increasingly controversial, because although the children are reporting significantly fewer attacks, they are missing more classes.

“The largest health problem that our schools have is indoor air pollution,” said Claire Burnett, executive director of the upstate New York nonprofit Healthy Schools Network. “Pesticides are an air contaminant that just doesn’t wash away.”

Burnett said the two main problems are that most parents do not know what kinds of pesticides are being used, and even if they do, the pollutants tend to linger in poisonous harbors like old carpets.

“We only test the active ingredients, but the inert ingredients may act as a trigger as well,” Burnett said. “There are no easy answers here.”

In January, the EPA released a report showing pesticide levels in minors to be twice that of adults. One chemical consistently found in test subjects was Dursban, a carcinogenic cockroach killer banned in 2001. In a 1999 survey, some Minnesota schools reported using Dursban extensively.

“Pesticides have already been shown to exacerbate asthma,” said Kagan Owens of the Washington-based nonprofit Beyond Pesticides. “Unfortunately, some pesticide side effects resemble asthma or flu-like symptoms, so it becomes very difficult to tell them apart.”

“Generally, this is not publicly known and we still have to do a lot more research,” Owens said. “We do know for certain that when some of these chemicals get sprayed in a room, it can possibly result in some severe health problems.”

Research and regulations

In 1999, Minnesota passed the Right to Know Act, which restricted spray zones and required posting notifications and regulations on school grounds. The University’s Integrated Pest Management program has since been utilized in the Hopkins school system as well as a few schools in St. Paul and Maple Grove, Minn.

Currently, no federal statute requires collecting data on pesticide use in the nation’s estimated 110,000 public schools.

In 1995, Louisiana passed a law requiring its school districts to annually report their pesticide use.

Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico and New York require applicators to report how much they use but not where they use it.

Nathan Hall covers the environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected]