Students and school employees are being poisoned by pesticide use at schools and from drift off of neighboring farmlands

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that students and school employees are being poisoned by pesticide use at schools and from drift off of neighboring farmlands. The public health advocacy organization Beyond Pesticides has called on Congress to respond by passing the School Environment Protection Act (SEPA).

The study, "Acute Illnesses Associated With Pesticide Exposure at Schools," which analyzes 2593 poisonings from 1998 to 2002, finds incident rates overall of 7.4 cases per million children and 27.3 cases per million employees, while the authors conclude, "[T]hese results should be considered low estimates of the magnitude of the problem because many cases of pesticide poisoning are likely not reported to surveillance systems or poisoning control centers." The authors recommend that strategies be adopted to reduce the use of pesticides at school and reduce drift.

The study authors note the lack of protection for school children and employees under federal law, pointing out that state laws provide some protection but are varied, leaving large gaps. Thirty-three states have taken some level of action to step in and provide protective action to address pesticide use in, around, or near their schools, according to a Beyond Pesticides report, The Schooling of State Pesticide Laws. Seventeen states have required or recommended pesticide use restrictions. However, these laws represent a patchwork of laws that are uneven and inadequate across the country, according to Beyond Pesticides. SEPA has passed the U.S. Senate twice in the last four years and has been reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this year, H.R. 110 (Rush Holt, D-NJ).

The study finds that the incidence rates among children increased significantly from 1998 to 2002. While the study looks at acute, or short- term, effects, the study authors note that, "Repeated pesticide applications on school grounds raise concerns about persistent low level exposures to pesticides at schools." Continuing, the authors state, "The chronic long-term impacts of pesticide exposures have not been comprehensively evaluated; therefore, the potential for chronic health effects from pesticide exposures at schools should not be dismissed. Unfortunately, the surveillance methods used in our report are inadequate for assessing chronic effects." In addition, the authors note that pesticides on school grounds can be tracked inside school buildings.

"The study results represent the tip of the pesticide poisoning iceberg and provide yet more evidence that there is an urgent need for Congress to pass the School Environment Protection Act to protect children," said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.

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