OK, let’s just get it out of the way now — the contents of this page are pretty gross. We’re sorry. No one wants pests such as rats, lice or cockroaches in school buildings. But they happen — from suburbia to rural and urban school campuses. If you have pests at your school, you are not alone.
Pesticides can play a role in helping to control pests, but pesticides are designed to have harmful effects on living things and so pose hazards of their own. Students and staff can be exposed to pesticides both indoors and outdoors via inhalation, skin contact, or ingestion (via the mouth). The health effects of pesticide exposure depend on the type of pesticide used and the amount absorbed. Direct exposure can cause immediate effects such as: irritation to eye, nose and throat, headache, dizziness, muscular weakness, and nausea. Long-term effects can also occur, such as damage to central nervous system and kidneys and increased risk of cancer. Chronic exposure to some pesticides can result in damage to the liver, kidneys, endocrine and nervous systems. As with many pollutants, children are more susceptible to pesticides than adults.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
Because children are more sensitive to pesticides, it is important to use them carefully and only when necessary. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that schools implement an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. According to EPA, “a school IPM program uses common sense strategies to reduce sources of food, water and shelter for pests in your school buildings and grounds. An IPM program takes advantage of all pest management strategies, including the judicious and careful use of pesticides when necessary.” This approach reduces the number of pests and the need for pesticides.
The key elements of an IPM plan are:
- Regular site inspections to determine the types and infestation levels of pests.
- A record-keeping system to establish trends and patterns in pest outbreaks.
- Establishment of action levels for specific pests (this is the population size at which action is required)
- Preventive measures as the primary means of pest control
- Criteria to identify the least-toxic material to be used (when chemicals are necessary to avoid/minimize exposure to humans and non-target organisms
- Regular evaluation to determine the effectiveness of the program
The Usual Suspects
In the US there are between 6 and 12 million cases of head lice each year. It can happen to anyone and it is one of the most common school health issues. Some of the shampoos used to treat lice can have severe effects on children. These products must be used carefully and according to directions to minimize exposures. There are products that carry significantly fewer risks, but many people are not aware of these safer and effective options. Lice easily move from person to person and controlling transmission can reduce the need for treatment. Learn more about head lice.
Mice and rats are often found in school buildings, getting in through cracks and small openings in the building. They can chew electrical wires and are a source of allergens and asthma triggers. There are many non-chemical strategies for preventing them from entering the building or removing them once they have entered. These non-chemical strategies should be applied before using rodentcides. Learn more about mice and rats here and check out a sample IPM for mice and rats here.
Although schools do not often experience major bed bug infestations, roving bed bugs are frequently found in many schools. Because bed bugs arrive in school on staff and students it is important to address the problem if they are spotted. Learn more, more, and still more about how to manage bed bugs in the school environment.
Organizing and Advocacy
Developing and implementing an IPM program should be part of a comprehensive approach to school environmental issues. NEA members and the local association should:
- Advocate for schools to adopt an IPM policy and implement an IPM program if one does not exist. Be sure to check existing local and state regulations, district policies and contract language that address pesticide use in schools.
- Ensure that staff, students and parents are given 72 hours written notice of all non-low impact pesticide use and that signs are posted in target areas.
- Ensure that when pesticides are necessary, that the least-toxic pesticides, such as boric acid baits, and the most effective and efficient products and techniques are used.
- Ensure that pesticides are applied when occupants are not present; schedule applications after hours, on weekends or during summer breaks.
- Ensure that external pesticides are not applied near outside air intakes.
- Ensure that food contaminated dishes and surfaces in areas like the kitchen and cafeteria are cleaned right away and waste is discarded.
- Ensure that pesticides are stored in locked, well-ventilated areas that are away from ignition sources.
Pesticides are regulated under several laws, but primarily the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). FIFRA authorizes EPA to oversee the registration, distribution, sale, and use of pesticides. EPA registers pesticides for use and requires manufacturers to put information on the label about when and how to use the pesticide. Pesticide labels have the authority of law. Use is regulated in some states by health and environmental agencies, requiring applicators to be trained and licensed.