Texas Observer Political Intelligence
In a state known for flying roaches the size of small planes and a fire ant population that outnumbers humans, it’s not surprising that many people use pesticides. Of course, the pesticides are often more dangerous than the pests, especially to children. Now some of Texas’ anti-pesticide advocates—there aren’t many—are concerned that the Texas Department of Agriculture is considering loosening restrictions on pesticide use in schools.
Mary Hintikka never really thought about pesticides sprayed on school grounds, including outdoor gardens and athletic fields, even inside buildings. But as she watched her school-age son develop frequent, unexplained illnesses, she began to suspect that pesticides might be the cause. She was alarmed to learn that the powerful chemicals sprayed in and around her son’s Houston school included chemicals on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the most dangerous pesticides. Children with long-term or acute exposure to some of these chemicals, numerous studies have shown, are more likely to suffer from childhood leukemia, soft-tissue sarcoma, and brain cancer.
In 2007, the Legislature passed a bill by Corsicana Republican state Rep. Byron Cook that abolished the Structural Pest Control Board—by most accounts, a lax regulatory body—and folded its duties into the Agriculture Department. The idea behind the bill was to strengthen oversight and regulation of pesticides, especially for schools. The bill instructed the department to create new regulations for pesticide use at schools.
The agency released a draft of the new rules last summer, and they were much stricter. Schools could only spray the most powerful pesticides—those in the so-called red category (there are also green and yellow designations)—if students wouldn’t be within 100 feet of the spray area for at least 12 hours. The proposed 100-foot buffer was double the current standard, 50 feet for 12 hours.
(That’s still not ideal. Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., has recommended that students not be allowed in sprayed areas for at least 24 hours.)
The pesticide industry and school boards didn’t like the proposal. They complained to the agency, saying the buffer zone was too onerous, says Bryan Black, a department spokesman. So in its most recent revision, released earlier this year, the department recommends that schools spray only where students won’t be within 25 feet for eight hours. That’s not only lower than the agency’s draft, it’s lower than the current standard.
Black says the department consulted experts at Texas A&M’s Southwest Technical Resource Center in formulating the new standard. “We believe these standards are absolutely safe,” he says. “We’re not going to do anything that would put children in danger.”
But Hintikka—like Sue Pitman, a pesticide expert who once worked in Texas and now lives in Colorado—worries that the department is bowing to pressure from industry and schools. Hintikka says the reason for moving pesticide oversight to the Agriculture Department was to strengthen standards, not weaken them.
The department hasn’t finalized the rules. The agency will decide in the next month to either implement the proposal or revise it again. In the meantime, Hintikka says, parents should find out exactly what pesticides are being used at their kids’ schools.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer