Pests pose serious risks to children's health in schools. At the same time, using pesticides in schools to control pests can be challenging because of heightened concerns and misinformation. However, it's important to remember pesticides can be used safely and responsibly to control pests such as insects, rodents and weeds as part of a balanced program called integrated pest management.
Cockroaches, ants, wasps, head lice and rats - the pests most commonly found in schools - do more than disrupt the learning environment. They pose increasing health and safety risks to children. Children, just by nature of their size, are more vulnerable to vector-borne diseases (carried by insects) because their immune systems are still developing. Consider some of the problems with pests in the school environment:
Cockroaches can live and breed by the thousands in classrooms and cafeterias. They carry germs from filthy surfaces to cafeteria tables and classroom desks. Cockroaches are the leading cause of asthma incidents in urban youth. The more children are exposed to cockroaches the more allergic they become.
Mosquitoes carry deadly diseases. Seven people were killed in New York during the summer of 1999 after being bitten by mosquitoes that carried the West Nile virus. Also, two 11-year-old boys contracted malaria from mosquitoes while attending a summer Boy Scout camp on Long Island.
Rats and mice are often found living in and under school buildings. Rodents contaminate stored food with their droppings and urine and spread the deadly hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, an infectious disease linked to more than 27 recent deaths in the United States.
Fire ants build their nests on school grounds. These nests often contain more than 100,000 ants. During recess and physical education classes, children are often stung when they step into nests while playing. Fire ants can inflict hundreds of painful stings to children. More than 80 people have died from fire ant attacks out-of-doors and 10 have died from serious attacks indoors.
More than half the U.S. population, including children, is allergic to poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac that cause severe skin irritation, intense itching and burning as well as blistering. A Wisconsin school district banned the use of herbicides to control poison ivy and other weeds. However, the decision was reversed when a student had to undergo a 22-day course of steroids to treat a poison ivy rash. Other weeds such as crabgrass and dandelions can cause injury when children trip over them on playgrounds and sports fields.
These problems caused by pests warrant that schools implement a pest management program. Many are turning to integrated pest management or IPM.
IPM defined – Integrated pest management can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of a school's pest control program and can reduce pesticide costs. While IPM includes the judicious use of appropriate pesticides, it also implies that pesticides will be used only if necessary.
Each situation is carefully monitored, allowing the use of the most appropriate approach to effectively control the pest, including the use of a pesticide when needed. This specific, targeted approach results in an effective pest control program, one that assures the correct amount of pesticide is applied and enhances the safety and well-being of students, faculty and staff.
How IPM Works – There are three steps in integrated pest management:
Identify and monitor the pests. – IPM begins by identifying pests in and around school property and monitoring the level of infestation. Accurate pest identification is critical. Each pest has a life cycle and certain environmental needs. Proper identification and monitoring makes it easy to select the most appropriate, cost effective control available. It's important to know when pests invade a school and where they are located. Often, sticky traps are used for monitoring pest populations. The traps show what type and how many pests are present.
Determine an action threshold. – A school or school district should determine an "action threshold." This is the level of pest infestation and activity that can be tolerated. The action threshold for each pest is determined by the potential severity of the damage caused by the pest, site characteristics, health concerns related to the pest and site user needs. Each school or district may have different action thresholds.
Take preventative or curative actions. – Accurate pest identification and awareness of the action threshold gives a school's pest management team the information needed to take action. IPM encourages the use of several pest control methods, allowing each school or district to create the best, safest pest control program. Among the IPM pest control tools available are: sanitation; structural repair and maintenance; watering and mowing practices; pest resistant plant varieties; and judicious use of pesticides.
Communication is key – To be effective, a pest management team has to establish clear lines of communication and designated roles of responsibility. Often, the school board sets the overall pest management policy, provides funding and monitors the results. It's important that the school board understands what IPM is.
Sometimes school boards may be pressured to completely eliminate the use of pesticides. They may try this approach only to discover the judicious use of pesticides is needed to economically and effectively control pest populations found in and around schools and protect the health of children. Extensive research and solid science show pesticides pose little or no risk to the health of children or adults when used according to label instructions.
Establishing a Program – In addition to effective communications, an IPM program must include a written policy and a knowledgeable coordinator.
A written policy is essential. IPM is doomed to fail without broad understanding and commitment by all stakeholders including faculty, staff, board members and parents. A written policy helps to gain consensus and provides continuity.
Once a policy is in place, a staff person should coordinate the overall program. Whether the entire program is implemented internally or the majority of services are contracted out to a pest control professional, it is critical to have a knowledgeable person on staff.
Success of IPM in schools is also dependent upon full cooperation of administrators, faculty, maintenance/custodial staff, parents and students.
Treatment Options – Once an IPM program is in place, it's important to choose the right treatment options to control pests. Here are a few to consider:
Education – Information that will help change student and staff behaviors - particularly how they dispose of wastes and store foods - play an invaluable role in managing pests like cockroaches, ants, flies, yellowjackets and rodents. Education is a cost-effective pest management strategy.
Spot treatments – Pesticide treatments should be applied when and where needed. It isn't always necessary to treat an entire building or landscape area to solve a pest problem. By monitoring to pinpoint where pest numbers are beginning to reach an action level and confining treatments to those areas, costs and exposure can be kept to a minimum. Examples of spot treatments include baits that are applied to pest harborages or contained in childproof bait stations, dusts that are applied to space behind walls or in attics or crack and crevice injections that target the pests where they live.
Habitat modification – Pests need food, water and shelter to survive. If the pest manager can eliminate or reduce even one of these requirements, the environment will support fewer pests.
Design or redesign of structure – Design changes can incorporate pest-resistant structural materials, fixtures and furnishings. These changes sometimes can entirely eliminate pest habitat. For example, buildings designed without exterior horizontal ledges will reduce pigeon problems. Inside, industrial stainless steel wire shelving mounted on rolling casters, rather than built-in shelves, helps reduce roach habitat and facilitates cleanup of spilled food.
Sanitation – Improved sanitation practices, such as removing trash on a regular basis, can reduce or eliminate food for pests.
Eliminating Pest Habitat – How this can be done, varies depending upon the pest. Some examples include caulking cracks and crevices to eliminate cockroach and flea harborage, removing clutter that provides roach habitat and removing dense vegetation near buildings to eliminate rodent harborage.
Modification of Horticultural Activities – Planting techniques, irrigation, fertilization, pruning and mowing can all affect how well plants grow. Many problems encountered in school landscapes are attributable to using the wrong plants and/or failing to give them proper care. Healthy plants are often likely to have fewer insects, mites or diseases. It's very important the person responsible for school landscaping has the knowledge needed to do the job with pest management in mind.
Resources – For more information about pests and IPM, consider these resources:
School IPM website (www.ifas.ufl.edu/~schoolipm) - The University of Florida, Gainesville, has created an IPM website that provides tools for schools to begin an IPM program. The site responds to parental concerns regarding pesticide use and contains links to additional state IPM programs.
By implementing a school IPM program that includes the judicious use of pesticides, school administrators and facilitators can be sure students won't be sharing classrooms, cafeterias and playgrounds with insects, rodents and weeds that pose serious health and safety risks.