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Maine Makes Last-Ditch Effort to Protect Children from Pesticides

Trying to follow in the footsteps of the states of Connecticut and New York, which have enacted legislation to eliminate pesticides from schoolgrounds, legislators in Maine are trying to pass LD 837, “An Act to Protect Children’s Health and Promote Safe Schools and Day Care Centers by Limiting the Use of Pesticides.” The bill did not gain committee support, but can still be brought to the open floor of the legislature for a full debate.

The bill’s supporters are hoping the public will call Maine’s elected officials to voice support for the bill, which can be found here: http://www.safelawns.org/blog/index.php/2011/03/public-hearing-set-for-maine-school-pesticide-bill/.

Here is the body of a letter getting wide distribution in Maine today. Please forward it to your legislator and let them know you care about this:

Dear Legislator,

What LD 837 does to safeguard school children

This bill prohibits pesticides on public school playgrounds, athletic fields, and lawns (including those of child-care facilities and nursery schools) except in cases of demonstrable human-health emergency. By implication, the legislation calls for organic pest management (OPM) rather than “integrated pest management” (IPM) as defined by the Agriculture Department, which makes allowance for spraying insects and unwanted vegetation with poisons for cosmetic and economic reasons. The current policy is not compatible with providing a safe learning environment for children.

Why LD 837 is necessary

Scores of epidemiological studies show significantly increased risk of childhood cancer, learning disabilities, and behavioral disorders after exposure to herbicides and insecticides. Childhood cancer has increased markedly over the last twenty years and is the leading cause of death by disease among U.S. children under fourteen. Maine’s pesticide-control board has found that most schools in the state use pesticides, and that pesticides are often applied by unlicensed staff — a violation of state law. There is no reason to believe that the board’s implementation of an IPM policy in recent years has changed the practices of school personnel and contractors who spray pesticides. We do know that the use of lawn-care chemicals has increased seven-fold over the past decade (see thinkfirstspraylast.gov).

Why LD 837 as amended by the Agriculture Committee does not protect children

As defined by the Maine statute (Chapter 27) governing pesticide applications on school grounds, the IPM policy leaves to school employees or outside applicators (pest-control companies with an obvious vested interest) the decision as to whether dandelions and other “weeds” are unsightly and must therefore be exterminated. A school’s designated IPM coordinator could also, for example, evaluate the potential costs from a grub infestation (possibly with subsequent damage from grub predators like crows or skunks) and opt for a quick chemical fix. A typical impulsive reaction to a perceived threat, this poses unacceptable risks to human health as well as to the environment. In light of the toxicity of weed and insect killers, the assertion that weeds on playing fields pose a safety hazard fails to pass the straight-face test.

Changing LD 837 to a resolve, the action recommended by the Agriculture Committee — authorizing the pesticide-control board to draft Best Management Practices to reinforce its IPM policy — is not a satisfactory outcome. With passage of LD 837 in its original form, we can hold the pesticide-control board to a higher standard in implementing IPM, without any further BMP window dressing. Its role as enforcement authority will remain unchanged, though over time the board should be required to improve oversight by collecting records of emergency pesticide purchases by schools as well as formalizing schools’ reporting of all chemical use. Obviously there are savings to be realized: Limiting pesticides will reduce the time required for enforcement along with the expense of paying for chemicals and applicators.

How safer alternatives to toxic chemicals save money

Chip Osborne, a prominent horticulturalist who manages playing fields organically, finds that chemical-intensive turf maintenance depletes beneficial microorganisms and causes soil to be hard and compacted. His methods of improving the quality of soil and aerating it have been shown to be cost effective over time, and he points to the cost of not following organic practices: “… the cost of exposing children to cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, and asthma-triggering chemicals [in places] where they play for long hours.” (See also safelawns.org.)

Statements from the University of Maine Co-Op Extension’s own manual: “Outdoor IPM for Maine Schools”

“Considering the health concerns to children surrounding pesticide use, schools may want to rule out any use of pesticides for purely aesthetic [cosmetic] reasons.”

“If children regularly gather at the site, chemical pesticides will not be used (from a Sample Site Plan for a School Lawn).”

These sensible prescriptions, put forward as recommendations only, need the force of law. On school grounds the only justification ever to apply toxic chemicals is the one stipulated in LD 837: emergency control of stinging insects when designated experts agree that they could threaten public health.

We call on legislators to pass LD 837 in its original language, supporting the minority report submitted by Rep. O’Brien and Rep. Kent.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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