Some are vacuumed. Some are swept. Others are crushed, baited or trapped. The rest are kept out with caulk, window screens, door sweeps or, as a last resort, sprayed with chemicals.
In some schools, the spray comes first.
“We have a season that never stops,” said University of Arizona entomologist Dawn Gouge, about school pests in the state. “We have pest issues all year round.”
Many school districts have their schools sprayed with pesticides at least once a month to prevent or kill pests such as cockroaches and ants, Gouge said.
Some pesticides and pests are known to harm children’s health, said Shakunthala Nair, coordinator for the Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, program at UA. A new program is going to help Arizona schools minimize that risk to children.
The university is creating an online training and certification program for school employees to learn how to reduce pesticide use and get rid of pests in safer ways. The training program, funded by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is being tested in eight states. It includes six schools in five of Arizona’s school districts: Phoenix Union High School District, Gilbert Public Schools, Mesa Public Schools, Maricopa Unified School District and Catalina Foothills School District.
The training helps districts start IPM, which focuses on keeping pests out in the first place. It helps schools get rid of the food, water and shelter that might attract pests, according to the EPA. Pesticides may still be used as a last resort.
“It’s a very common-sense approach,” said Al Fournier, associate director of the Arizona Pest Management Center at UA.
The grant builds on the university’s experience helping school districts use IPM. Any school employee around the country will eventually be able to complete the online trainings and earn certification, making schools healthier, safer places to learn and work.
Risks to Children’s Health
Both pests and pesticides can be harmful to children’s health, Nair said.
“They are so much more vulnerable to pesticides and pests both than adults because they’re not little adults,” she said. “Their bodies are developing, so they don’t have the exact mechanisms to detoxify pesticides as efficiently as adults do.”
Children breathe more air, and therefore air pollutants, than adults, according to the EPA.
Cockroaches are one pest that can cause allergies, especially in people who are sensitive to them, Nair said.
Cockroaches, dust mites, rodents, mold, weeds and other pests can also cause or trigger asthma.
Some pesticides and cleaning products can too, according to a report from The IPM Institute of North America, Inc., based out of Wisconsin.
The EPA states that a short but intense exposure to pesticides might cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, muscle twitching, weakness and tingling in children. Effects of chronic exposure can include learning disabilities, behavior changes, organ damage, certain cancers and asthma.
Pesticides are labeled by how dangerous they are. Most of those used by schools have the labels “Caution” or “Warning,” rather than the most dangerous chemicals, which are labeled “Danger,” Fournier said.
“The technology is so much better and safer than in the past,” he said. The type of chemicals are safer in general, and those used in baits are more contained and only kill a certain pest, he said.
Yet some of the most dangerous pesticides that may be used in schools are rodenticides, which kill rats and other rodents, Gouge said.
“They’re designed to kill mammals,” she said. “Children are mammals.”
Arizona schools do not have to report pesticide sprayings to a state office, Fournier said.
Rather, each school district keeps its own records, Nair said.
Arizona state law requires that pesticides be applied by a trained professional, and that faculty and parents at schools and child care centers get notified at least 48 hours before pesticides are sprayed at schools.
Inspectors from the state’s Office of Pest Management are responsible for checking if schools are following the law.
Not all school districts notify parents of pesticide spraying, Gouge said in an email. Some districts do not know they should. Others let parents know at the start of the school year.
In the Phoenix area, Kyrene School District, one of the first in Arizona to start Integrated Pest Management more than 15 years ago, might post notices on the main door, in person, or through email, phone or other methods, according to the school district’s website.
Debra Cozens, a Prescott mother of two, has not received notice from schools her children have attended in the area, she said.
“I’m probably more conscious about that stuff than I ever have been,” she said about pesticides, including those used on foods.
In Arizona and most other states, Integrated Pest Management, an alternative way of managing pests, is voluntary.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends schools to use it.
The idea for IPM has been around for decades, but when Dawn Gouge started working at the University of Arizona in 2000, she was aware of only one school district in Arizona that was using the technique, Kyrene School District in the Phoenix metro area, she said.
Now, 44 out of Arizona’s 230 public school districts use IPM, according to recent data from the university.
In Arizona schools that use IPM, university research shows that the overall occurrence of pests decreased 78 percent on average. Pesticide use went down 71 percent.
Teaching school employees about IPM is the first step, Gouge said.
The next step is to eliminate the routine spraying of pesticides, Fournier said. Many school districts in Arizona hire contractors trained in pesticide application to spray pesticides inside schools whether there is a pest or not.
“That is not a judicious use of pesticides,” Gouge said. “It’s considered at this point to be just a Band-Aid approach to ‘there’s a pest issue, let’s spray something at it and hope that it works.'”
Routine spraying can be expensive. Some school districts spend $30,000 to $60,000 per year on pesticides, Gouge said. This includes chemicals sprayed both indoors and outdoors on school grounds.
The next step to IPM is to “determine if there’s a pest,” Fournier said. “The second thing is to determine what type of pest,” then use the appropriate ways to get rid of that pest.
Tactics include putting in door sweeps to prevent pests from crawling in beneath doors, installing window screens, filling in cracks, keeping food in sealed containers, clearing drains, sweeping up crumbs, using sticky traps, getting rid of corrugated cardboard which draws cockroaches, and other methods.
“Every time somebody sees a bug, they want to spray,” said Daniel Vezie, a facility staff member at Maricopa Unified School District south of Phoenix, who started the district’s IPM program two years ago.
Instead, he trains teachers to vacuum ants or spiders. He sprays bee or wasp nests with soapy water or rosemary oil to kill them.
“We don’t like doing that either, but I’ve got to, since they’re out there where the kids are,” Vezie said.
Safer methods are considered before pesticides, though sometimes pesticides are used, Fournier said.
“IPM is not an anti-chemical effort,” Gouge said. “So, it’s not organic. We’re not aiming at organic. We’re aiming at the judicious use of pesticides when necessary.”
Vezie does spray pesticides outside the school doors when thousands of crickets invade the school grounds every winter, he said. The crickets used to get indoors, and the insects would be sprayed there.
When Vezie learned about IPM, he installed door sweeps under the doors, and that stopped most of the crickets from coming in, he said. Now, he sprays a small amount outside the entrances where hundreds of crickets pile up.
Before starting IPM, Maricopa Unified School District spent about $10,000 a year to have a company spray the schools, he said. Instead, the district offered Vezie a raise and allowed him to get trained to apply pesticides.
There was an initial cost for the door sweeps and other tools, he said.
But long-term increases in costs are not a problem with IPM, according to a University of Arizona report.
“Ultimately, you can save money,” said Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director with the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter. With some school districts having their schools sprayed every month, every year, “that’s a lot of money and a lot of poison.”
The down side of IPM is that it requires training, Gouge said.
It is also not a one-size-fits-all strategy. The techniques differ from school to school and pest to pest, Nair said.
“Everyone in the school has to be involved.”
Online training spreads reach
The main goal of the University of Arizona’s new grant award is to create online Integrated Pest Management training and, eventually, exams and certification. Through the “Building Sustainable School IPM Inside and Out” trainings, any school employee around the country can learn how to start IPM in a school district.
In the first year of the two-year grant, the university team has created nine online trainings and led in-person workshops for school employees.
The trainings are geared toward nine types of school employees who usually deals with pests, including custodians, groundskeepers, teachers, food service workers and nurses.
Now in the second year of the grant, the university is testing the training in five Arizona school districts to see how it works.
The university team hopes to grow the program, Fournier said.
“Hopefully by the third year, these schools are able to function on their own,” Fournier said. After improving the training program based on feedback, a certification will be developed.
Gouge suggested that parents have a lot of power in helping school districts start IPM, she said.
“I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a superpower, but parents weld more clout than they may think,” she said in an email.
Arizona parents can contact school districts’ facility managers, superintendents or safety and sustainability committees to let them know about IPM, she said. School districts interested in starting a program can get in touch with the Arizona Pest Management Center and view the online trainings.
“There are huge health benefits for IPM schools that translate directly into attendance, which directly affect (dollars) to the district. When a district asks us ‘how can we afford to do IPM?’ We ask, ‘how can you afford not to?'”
Ann Posegate is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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