Starting Jan. 1, a new state law will require public schools to use the least poisonous pest control methods possible and to notify the public about the use of pesticides.
The burden of this new law falls mostly on operations managers of school districts, who say they support the legislation despite the piles of new paperwork.
But some experts say the bill doesn’t go far enough.
“The legislation is just a start,” said Dr. Oladele Ogunseitan, an environmental health scientist at UC Irvine. “I don’t want to underestimate the significance of passing this bill, but pesticides by definition are toxic to living things including people. And children are more sensitive to pesticides because they tend to put things in their mouths.”
The bill calls for schools to increase the use of nontoxic methods to control pests, including improving sanitation, screens, caulking, inspections, traps and bait stations.
School officials say pest infestations are a perennial problem, especially in newly developed areas of the county.
“We have lots of little critters in this district since we’re quasi-rural,” said Tom McKeown, supervisor of maintenance and operations for Saddleback Valley Unified School District. “We’re out in the new building areas where we’re displacing these critters, which annoys them considerably.”
Concerned parents have called the district office asking about the new bill, said Dr. Bill Manahan, assistant superintendent of operations for Saddleback. He said the parents have been asking about the chemicals used for spraying in Saddleback schools and when the new legislation will go into effect.
But besides environmentalists, pest control professionals also think the bill doesn’t go far enough--for a different reason.
“A vast majority of schools’ pest infestations are handled by in-house personnel, " said Harvey Logan, executive vice president of Pest Control Operators of California, a Sacramento-based trade association representing the pest control industry. “You have quite a number of people making pest applications who have never undergone any formal training. If applications of pesticides are done by a professional rather than an unlicensed individual, then the risk to children is minimal.”
Little Change for Some Districts
McKeown, who hires licensed pest control contractors, said not much will change in the Saddleback district since it already complies with regulations of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. He said the district also advocates pest prevention measures like bait traps and schedules spraying when students won’t be on campus.
“We can’t just run out and eradicate [pests] now,” said McKeown. “We have to take a little time and make sure everyone knows what we’re doing.”
Paperwork required by the new bill will be time-consuming, especially sending annual notices to parents and teachers specifying chemicals used on campuses. That will be the biggest change for the Tustin Unified School District, said district spokesman Mark Elliot. In the past, the district’s maintenance director sent memos to schools for posting, and many principals notified parents about spraying in school newsletters.
“Some things we deal with on a regular basis are, of course, ants, termites and bees,” said Elliot. “Sometimes we get gophers or rodents, especially in new construction areas or in the hills.”
Activists say an outright ban on the most toxic pesticides is the next step for state lawmakers.
“Parents don’t ever think pesticide use is happening in their school,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group, a sponsor of the bill. “If you have pesticides that could be harmful to kids, we should be keeping them out of schools.”
Ogunseitan is also concerned about the long-term effects of exposure to even “least toxic” pesticides.
“I would like to see us present an approach where you use pesticides only as a last resort where there is clear and present danger of, say, rat infestation,” he said. “In that case, you may have to close schools for a while.”
But some parents are more concerned about pests than pesticides.
“I want schools to spray to get rid of the pests,” said Cheryl Casper, who is a neighbor of the Montevideo Elementary School in Mission Viejo, where her 7-year-old daughter is enrolled. “I’d rather get rid of the pests. I think the [school officials] know not to do it at high-risk levels.”
Casper, whose husband used to work in the pest-control business, said she’d be more concerned about her daughter being exposed to diseases carried by such insects as cockroaches than by the spraying.