Most parents breathe a little easier while their children are at school, assuming that their kids are safely under the supervision of teachers and other qualified personnel.
This feeling of security might be misplaced, however according to recent studies that show an increasing number of children are at risk of exposure to poisons and pesticides, both inside the classroom and on the playground.
Pesticides, from disinfectants to herbicides and insecticides, are used on and around school property. Schools located in agricultural areas may also be exposed to toxic run-off and drift from neighboring farms.
Surprisingly, there are no current federal requirements on limiting pesticide exposures at schools. This fact may change, however, in light of new findings published in The Journal of the American Medical Association from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Cincinnati, regarding pesticide-related illnesses connected to exposure at school.
The researchers gathered the data by using three pesticide surveillance systems: the Toxic Exposure Surveillance System (TESS), the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks.
The study tracked reports of pesticide-related illnesses in both children and full-time school employees from 1998 to 2002. During this time period, illnesses related to pesticide exposure at a school or from neighboring drift occurred in 2,593 cases.
The majority of the reported cases were mild and there were no reported fatalities. Most of the 2,500-plus cases were of “low severity,” meaning no medical intervention was needed. Symptoms usually included eye, skin, or upper respiratory tract irritation.
Roughly 275 cases were moderately severe. While they weren’t disabling or life-threatening, they did require medical treatment.
Fortunately, only three of the cases found were severe. These illnesses often require hospitalization, and may be life-threatening.
The researchers noted, however, that the actual incidence of pesticide-related illnesses may be considerably higher since certain symptoms of chemical exposure mirror those associated with other illnesses thereby leading to possible misdiagnoses.
A breakdown of the types of pesticides and the prevalence of illness linked to them was noted as follows:
• Insecticides: 35% of reported illnesses
• Disinfectants: 32% of reported illnesses
• Repellants: 13% of reported illnesses
• Herbicides: 11% of reported illnesses
• Fungicides, rodenticides and others: 9% of reported illnesses
Among those exposed to pesticides, nearly seven out of 10 cases were directly linked to pesticides used at schools. The rest were connected to pesticides from drift from neighboring farms.
Overall, researchers found that between 1998 and 2002, 27. 3-per-million full time school workers and 7.4-per-million children have acute pesticide-related illnesses.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, and the Department of Community and Preventative Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City says that a few factors contribute to children’s vulnerability to pesticide exposure.
According to Dr. Landrigan: “Children are more susceptible to pesticide exposure because they breathe more air pound for pound than adults, they play on the floor, and they live two feet off the floor, where pesticides linger, rather than five to six feet off the floor like adults.”
Children also spend much of their time playing on wooden playground structures and on decks. These surfaces, a Canadian Study revealed, may expose children to significant levels of arsenic.
Until 2003, the wood used to make such structures was treated with the preservative chromated copper arsenate (CCA). A study published in the October 2004 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives found that children who play on wooden structures treated with CCA were left with more arsenic on their hands than children playing on other wooden sets.
To collect data, researchers from University of Alberta examined the hands of 66 children playing in 8 CCA playgrounds and compared them to the hands of 64 kids playing in 8 CCA-free playgrounds. After play, children washed their hands in a bag containing water. The solution was then analyzed for the presence of arsenic.
On average, the researchers found that kids playing in CCA playgrounds had more arsenic on their hands (.5 mcg compared to .095 mcg) than the other children. The amount found from CCA playgrounds ranged as high as 3.5 mcg.
Further, long term studies are needed to determine the significance of the data. It is known that exposure to higher concentrations of arsenic (200 mcg/L) in drinking water have been tied to an increase cancerous tumor growth, and to the existence of skin and bladder cancer. Below that level, meaningful research on the subject remains to be conducted.
Also unknown is how exposure to arsenic in drinking water compares to children’s exposure to small doses of arsenic on the playground.
Still, any level of exposure to a known carcinogenic toxin is unsettling, particularly if the exposure is occurring in a location where children spend a lot of time and are presumed to be safe.
But what are the possibilities for reducing the risk of illness and health problems to children due to exposure to the poisons and pesticides around them?
The researchers from University of Alberta urge parents to have their kids always wash their hands thoroughly after playing on structures that are coated with CCA.
Another possible solution is to coat the wood with an oil or water-based sealant so that the arsenic cannot get onto children’s’ hands.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed in May of 2004 that an ongoing study with the Consumer Safety Products Commission (CPSC) found that a yearly coating of such a sealant could cut down on arsenic exposure.
Such preventative steps are surely worth taking, given the potential hazards of arsenic exposure. According to Dr. James Roberts, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston; “Arsenic in children’s bodies is a long-term exposure and the outcomes are often caner at a much later age.”
Physicians, Roberts said, must be aware of the risks children’s exposure to the poison so that they can urge families to follow EPA recommendations on treating CCA-coated wood. At this point, it’s the only type of protection available.
In the case of pesticide exposure, study co-author Dr. Geoffrey Calvert, a medical officer with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati, and colleagues suggest that better pest-management techniques, along with the creation of buffer zones between schools and neighboring farms could help reduce exposure and the risk of pesticide related illness, or at least manage it.
Better pest control techniques include more diligent attempts at pest prevention such as keeping kitchens and food areas clean and keeping food in airtight, sealed containers and fixing cracks and crevices where pests can access a building.
Toxic chemicals, therefore, should be a last resort rather than the first step taken to fend off pests. “Only after you’ve taken these measures do you then treat for specific pests, but only using pesticides with the lowest toxicity, and only by someone well-trained in using pesticides,” Calvert said.
The problem of drift should be addressed in cooperation between schools and farms in the area. Pesticides should be applied when children and school employees are not on school grounds. Buffer zones between the farm and the school would also be helpful.
“These episodes are occurring far too often, and that’s really not acceptable,” said Landrigan of illness due to pesticide exposure. “These episodes are preventable, and parents, educators, school boards, and community officials need to take aggressive steps to reduce pesticide exposure.”
Clearly, children deserve to be protected from exposure to toxic chemicals in those areas where there is an expectation of safety. Schools and playgrounds should be the last places where children are put at risk in the short-term from chemically-induced illnesses and in the long-term from life-threatening diseases.
Anything less than everyone’s best efforts in this area are simply unacceptable given the innocence of the victims and the enormity of the risks.