Suzanne Logan says parents ask her all sorts of questions when inquiring about her Forest Park childcare center, Kangaroo Korner: “What’s the teacher/student ratio? Are teachers certified? Curriculum?”
But not once in 28 years has any parent asked, “What kind of pest management system do you use?”
Should we be asking?
Yes, says Julie Wagner from the Safer Pest Control Project, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago—in part because research links pesticide exposure in children to health problems such as asthma, cancer and developmental delays. But especially because a state law requiring school and daycare facilities to use a less toxic approach to pest control is nearly impossible to enforce.
“No funding was attached to this law, which will make it hard to enforce,” says Donald Baumgartner, who works in the pesticides program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chicago office. “And like with any law, minimal enforcement means minimal attention and compliance.”
Without funding, the law cannot do what it was designed to do—protect kids from exposure to dangerous chemicals.
While the use of pesticides is sometimes unavoidable, Wagner says the least toxic solution should be used—and even then only as a last resort—in places frequented by children.
Rather than use pesticides, the Safer Pest Control Project—and Illinois state law—call for childcare centers to use a safer, healthier, more environmentally friendly approach to pest control known in the industry as “integrated pest management.” It incorporates common sense with education, communication and a commitment to choosing less toxic solutions. And it uses pesticides only as a last resort.
In this approach, employees have to get down to the level of whatever is bugging them. They must play detective, identifying both the pest and its means of entrance. Through research, they create a pest profile with information ranging from food preference to other basic needs. Once employees have a pest profile, they work to eliminate the “how” and “why,” thus eliminating the “who.”
Most changes are common sense: fix holes in screens, keep areas clean, remove clutter, store food safely, don’t store garbage near a back entrance and break down and dispose of cardboard boxes (they may have bugs or eggs hiding in them). Some solutions prove more costly, but in the long run save money and prevent kids from being exposed to dangerous chemicals.
No funding for Illinois law
An Illinois law passed in 1999 requires public schools to use integrated pest management; another law requiring licensed daycare centers to use the system went into effect last year. In addition to mandating the use of integrated pest management, the law requires daycare facilities to notify parents two business days before using pesticides and to remove objects handled by children before the pesticide is applied.
However, the law applies only to licensed daycare centers—not licensed in-home childcare. And even with the law on the books, enforcing it is proving difficult.
Fred Riecks of the Illinois Department of Public Health says his department is in charge of setting guidelines for implementing the law. But if a facility can prove it cannot afford integrated pest management, it will be considered to be in compliance with the law.
What about facilities that can, but choose not to comply?
“If parents let us know [that their daycare center is not complying], we can send a letter and try to remedy the situation,” says Riecks. “But I don’t know what recourse there would be. There is no enforcement provision.”
There’s no money for enforcement either, Baumgartner says.
The Department of Children and Family Services is in the process of integrating this law into its childcare center licensing standards. Since the process is ongoing, parents still need to be vigilant, says Wagner. In other words, there is a long way to go.
“Enforcement and compliance monitoring is on the horizon,” Wagner says. “We just need to figure out how to get there. We have many pieces of the puzzle, but a few of the key pieces still require development—key pieces such as communication between governmental agencies and funding needs.”
Pesticides are ‘poison’
So why the big to-do? What’s wrong with a preschool employee spraying a can of Raid at invading ants?
“Parents need to understand that just because a pesticide is available doesn’t mean it is safe—even if used as directed,” Wagner says. “Pesticide is, almost by definition, poison.”
Research has linked pesticide exposure to a number of adverse health effects in children, including asthma and cancer. The Northern California Childhood Leukemia Study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (September 2002), tracked newly diagnosed kids up to age 14 and concluded that pesticide exposure between ages 1 to 3 increased the risk of leukemia.
Kids are exposed when they inhale the pesticide, absorb it through their skin or eat something that has been tainted by it. When a spray is used, some chemicals hang in the air and some settles onto the toy bins, carpet and tabletops. And it is still there when the children come to play.
A child’s physical size also plays a role. “If a young child and an adult were to ingest or come into contact with the same amount of pesticide, the child would receive the higher relative dose of toxin,” explains Dr. Hryhorczuk, director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County. “If the younger child and adult were exposed to the same contaminated air, the child would breathe in more of it, pound per pound.”
In addition, a child’s body metabolizes some toxins differently than an adult’s, meaning the toxins may stay in a child’s body longer.
And, Hryhorczuk says, the protective blood brain barrier, which protects the central nervous system from some toxins, is not fully developed in children. “Connections in the brain are still being made and chemicals can disrupt these connections, clearly putting children at a higher risk for developmental delays,” Hryhorczuk says.
Few pesticide poisonings
While parents should be concerned about the effects of pesticides and strive to be informed, Hryhorczuk says they should not become overly alarmed. Part of his job is to evaluate children who have been potentially overexposed to chemicals, and the number of pesticide poisoning cases he has seen is relatively low.
An ongoing study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that national numbers are low as well. Data presented to the American Public Health Association at its annual meeting last year by researchers Dr. Walter A. Alarcon and Dr. Geoffery M. Calvert show that from 1998 to 2002, 2,096 cases of school-related pesticide exposure illnesses were reported; 68 percent of the victims were children. The majority of these cases were classified as low in severity, with 188 classified as moderate and only four cases as high. But for parents, even one preventable case is too many. And exposure can be prevented.
Hryhorczuk says using integrated pest management is one way to do that. It’s more time consuming, but in most cases it’s easy and cost effective, he adds.
Some pest control businesses are following the trend. “We changed over a few years ago,” says David Harris-John of Smithereen Pest Management Services in Chicago, which has been in business since 1888.
“Now we only use pesticides as a last resort.” Harris-John says that once you start using integrated pest management, you find that you don’t need pesticides that often—the pests don’t come back.
Kangaroo Korner’s Logan, who is also president of PSO/Illinois’ Child Care Association, says that enforcement of the law requiring childcare facilities to follow suit is an issue that is being worked on. In the meantime, it is the parents who have the only real power to make their child’s environment pesticide free. And the first step is to ask the question: “What kind of pest management system do you use?”
To learn more about integrated pest management, call Safer Pest Control Project at (312) 641-5575 or visit www.spcpweb.org.