‘Pesticides + Schools = Bad combination’

María Arevalos has a simple message for parents and school officials: “Pesticides and schools are a bad combination,” she said in Spanish. “It’s something that should not happen.”

She knows from experience. She believes pesticides sprayed on school grounds once sickened her 8-year-old son, Eduardo, who has asthma. She recalled one day, when her son went to school feeling fine, and returned with nausea and no appetite.

“There is no other possibility,” said Arevalos, a member of the Fresno-based community group Latinos United for Clean Air, who has participated in pesticide awareness trainings in Sacramento and Salinas.

Arevalos spoke about the use of pesticides in schools during the group’s Clean Air, Healthy Family summit at Yokomi Elementary School May 11.

During her presentation, she encouraged parents school officials to place a greater emphasis on integrated pest management – a more healthy form of pest control that uses common sense and simple science to address pest problems, like mulching, controlling weeds, and sealing cracks.

When integrated pest management doesn’t solve the problem, she said, pesticides should be sprayed only when children are not on campus – either after the school, or on the weekend.

Arevalos’ concerns are more than the worries of an informed parent.

According to the recent report “Green Schools Within Reach,” 40 percent of reporting school districts in California continue to use the most dangerous, high-exposure methods for treating weeds and ant problems, despite the passage of the Healthy Schools Act of 2000.

Exposure to pesticides can have serious consequences for growing children. Nationwide, children ages 6-11 have the highest levels of pesticides in their bodies, compared to any other age category, according to the report, which was authored by Pesticide Watch Education Fund, Center For Environmental Health, and Californians for Pesticide Reform.

Child pesticide exposure has been linked to learning disabilities, asthma, cancer, and other serious health effects.

Photos by Héctor Navejas, Vida en el Valle.

Schooled in Health

I attended a fascinating seminar on the connection between schools and health during the California Working Families Policy Summit in Sacramento last week.

The seminar emphasized how crucial of a role schools could play, if school systems participated in all possible programs, and took advantage of community resources.

Consider all of these services and benefits schools could provide to students:

1. Schools could provide children with two healthy meals a day, said Ken Hecht of California Food Policy Advocates. But many lower-income students who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals don’t take advantage of the breakfast program, he said.

For example, according to BreakfastFirst.org, 56 percent of students – or 43,367 students – who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals in Fresno Unified School District don’t eat breakfast. That means those students are missing out on a free, nutritious meal – and the school district is losing $5,551,897 in federal funds. Unbelievable!

2. Schools could also provide students – especially lower-income students who live in neighborhoods with few safe places to play- with needed physical activity.

But even as California’s childhood obesity rate increases, and as chronic diseases become more prevalent, many schools are not offering adequate physical education, said Jennifer Richard of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

In fact, she said, less than 50 percent of elementary schools in the state comply with P.E. mandates, often due to lack of funds or lack of gym teachers.

3. Schools could also provide needed health services, said Serena Clayton of the California School Health Centers Association.

Across the state, she said, there are 176 school-based health centers, run by a local clinic, the school district, or the local health department. The school-based health centers can provide students with flu shots and other vaccines, and can generally bring health services directly to students.

At a time when education budgets – and families’ wallets – are stretched thin, and at a time when rates of obesity and chronic diseases, as well as health disparities, are increasing, what can we do to ensure that more schools are providing these healthy resources, and more?