What’s on the playing field?

Herbicides used for weeds can be dangerous to kids


Ryan Wenzel

Sports may be very good for a kid’s health, but is that true of the sports fields that most of them are playing on? What’s hiding in the manicured grass on the field might be hurting children.

To battle weeds, some schools use herbicides that contain chemicals harmful to children. And many parents aren’t aware of the chemicals their kids are exposed to because of inadequate communication with schools, say some environmentalists.

Exposure to chemicals found in certain herbicides can be harmful for anyone, but children are especially vulnerable.

Kids may be more likely to absorb toxins because they have a higher skin surface area to body weight ratio, says Dr. Carl Baum, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Yale University School of Medicine. Baum says kids are more susceptible merely because they’re closer to the ground. "One gram of something might be a problem for me, but it would be a bigger problem for a kid," he says.

And according to the law, these herbicides are dangerous enough to require schools to notify parents two days before spraying a field.

Green, green grass

Every year, thousands of children who participate in organized soccer, football, lacrosse or even just play on the school playground may be exposed to dangerous chemicals used to keep lawns free of weeds. These chemicals, which many feel do little more than satisfy an aesthetic need for clean lawns, often go unnoticed. But for some children, the chemicals can cause an increaesed heart rate, serious breathing problems, muscle deterioration and long-term health consequences, Baum says. This can be avoided if parents simply know about the spraying and keep their kids off the field.

Highland Park mom Kim Stone discovered just that last September. When Stone rode her bike past Indian Trail School, she noticed a chemical treatment truck parked next to the athletic field. Stone, whose two sons attend the elementary school, is also the associate director of Safer Pest Control Project, an organization formed to protect children from pesticides. She approached a man who was in the truck, and he told her he was getting ready to spray herbicides on the field. When she asked what chemicals would be used, he told her, "It wouldn’t matter to you, lady."

North Shore School District 112, Stone’s district, followed the law for the most part. The district placed an announcement in the Highland Park News and posted signs on the school building, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

But Stone says that wasn’t enough. According to the law, the district is supposed to keep a list of parents who want to receive individual notification about spraying.

Stone and other concerned parents circulated a petition against the sprayings that garnered about 1,000 signatures, and someone filed an anonymous complaint with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The district was fined $100 for not listing contact information with the notices and for failing to keep the registry.

Does the law help?

Despite the law, it’s doubtful parents get the information they need unless they carefully read newspaper notices, says Warren Goetsch, environmental bureau chief of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. "You hit maybe one family out of 10 with the newspaper, whereas you do much better through a school-sponsored newsletter."

According to Safer Pest Control Project, the key to responsibly maintaining areas outside schools is an "integrated pest management" program, which encourages avoiding chemicals by pulling the weeds. Illinois state law requires stringent rules for pest management inside schools, but the solutions are not as regulated outdoors.

State law requires only that school districts notify parents two days before pesticides are applied to lawns, but there are no state or federal regulations on what chemicals can be used and when.

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency encourages schools to adopt integrated pest management programs, using chemicals only as a last resort, but it’s impossible to force districts to implement these without strong legislation and funding, says Donald Baumgartner, a life scientist at the EPA’s Chicago office. "It’s hard to implement [IPM programs] in large cities because of the number of students and school districts, and there are always budget issues that have to be considered."

Not all school districts, especially those in urban areas, use chemicals. "We don’t have many athletic fields," says Lynne Michelle Moore, director of facility maintenance for Chicago Public Schools. "We have a hard enough time keeping them green and mowed."

Some environmentalists consider herbicides a uniquely Midwestern problem. "It’s a fashion we’ve become enamored with in the last 150 years," says Nancy Drew, an Oak Park mother of two, gardener and co-author of On Garden Style. "People want English lawns like they have in England. We live in the middle of the Midwest, in circumstances that are very different. It’s an aesthetic choice. It’s not essential to my child’s learning or athletics."

Julie Wagner agrees. People in the Midwest are so accustomed to using herbicides that they don’t consider the risks, says Wagner, program associate with the Safer Pest Control Project.

"Because so many people consider herbicides a natural part of American life, people fail to recognize that what they’re doing might be harming children," she says. "It’s not that they’re irresponsible or uncaring; they think that what they’re doing is proper maintenance."

And the EPA’s Baumgartner says the risks of herbicides sometimes are ignored because people are more concerned about pesticide applications indoors. Pesticides that target animals are typically more hazardous to humans, he says, but the EPA never considers herbicides safe—not even the ones sold at Home Depot. "We don’t use the word ‘safe.’ It’s not in our vocabulary," Baumgartner says. "There’s a huge range of products and toxicities. It depends on how people use it. It could be a less hazardous product, but if it’s misused or misapplied it can be hazardous."

Pull the weeds

But there are ways for parents to protect their children from herbicides. Wagner of the Safer Pest Control Project says the first step is to call the school to find out the policy—what chemicals it uses (if any), when the chemicals were last used it and what the chemicals target. If administrators tell you that they regularly spray chemicals, Wagner suggests talking to other parents, the principal and the grounds manager. But concerned parents should understand and be diplomatic with school representatives—immediate accusations won’t promote change. "It’s always good to be cooperative," Wagner says.

And when sprayings do occur, Stone recommends keeping children off the field until the next rain—or at least until the grass is watered. To be more precise, parents can request a material safety data sheet from the school. The sheet provides information on how long the chemicals used will remain in the soil.

There are alternatives to herbicides, Wagner says. She recommends keeping the grass taller and watering more deeply and less frequently to promote root growth. And she says tools—not chemicals—should be used to remove weeds. "Schools could also get rid of some of the lawn and replace it with a more natural landscape."

And if a school refuses to switch to safer methods or is unresponsive to questions or complaints, Wagner recommends calling the Safer Pest Control Project, which works with Chicago area schools to develop safe, cost-effective solutions to pest problems. "Given the relative overuse of pesticides in our world and the increasing incidents of possibly related health defects, it’s prudent for parents to take a few simple steps to protect their children’s health," she says.

Baum of Yale agrees. "It’s important for parents to be informed and to request information about the things that are applying and when," he says.

For more about pesticides and the Safer Pest Control Project, visit www.spcpweb.org.

Ryan Wenzel is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a Chicago Parent intern.


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