PROTECTING CHILDREN FROM PESTICIDES
Presented October 16, 1999 at The Women’s Community Cancer Project 10th Anniversary Celebration and Dedication of its mural of women activists who had died of cancer by Be Sargent, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Ellie Goldberg
I began doing research on local pesticide use in Spring 1994 when my daughter came home upset that her teacher had insisted that everyone in her physical education class do a short field run. She had become extremely short of breath and two students had vomited. When I called the teacher to ask about the possibility of chemicals on the field, he assured me that he had been teaching for years and there had never been any chemicals used.
Sadly, it turned out to be a false assurance. Imagine my surprise when I finally learned that the city did contract with a landscaper to do regular blanket sprayings on school fields and public parks of the herbicide PRE-M 60 DG and an herbicide mix of 2, 4-D, MCPP and Dicamba. These are the fields where the soccer leagues, the little league and school children play, where families picnic, dogs run, and babies crawl. This is a field where children cross twice a day to the school from the school bus stop.
From the chemical data sheets I learned that these herbicides are harmful if swallowed or inhaled. They irritate the airways, and cause skin redness and swelling. Vapors irritate the eyes and can cause irreversible eye damage. Signs of exposure are nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, myotonia, muscle weakness and a fall in blood pressure. Many of the ingredients are associated with cancer.
With a small group of friends, I began to try to get information about all the pest control contractors who apply pesticides to the city schools and fields. The information was difficult to obtain because different contractors worked for different city departments and they did not communicate or coordinate with each other. It took many phone calls to the Parks Department and to the School Department over several weeks to obtain just some of the service records and the material safety data sheets on the pesticides used outside and inside the school that year.
Neither school staff nor parents were informed about the pesticide applications and no warning signs were posted. It occurred to me that, like hit and run victims, the kids never knew what hit 'em.
In my own neighborhood there is a nursery school where yellow pesticide warning signs appear regularly outside their ground level classroom windows. The children -- two, three and four years old -– are frequently taken on walks around the block in the late morning, where on any given day in late spring, summer or fall, from five to ten or more lawns are getting their regular application of pesticides. I often wonder what the kids’ total daily exposure is and if they ever run their hands over the grass and put their fingers in their mouths. I wonder if any of these child throw up after lunch or have trouble settling down for a nap. I wonder if they ever get red itchy eyes, hives, rashes, runny noses or wheezes – symptoms that people typically attribute to flu, the common cold, or stress. I wonder about their futures.
I know these exposures are not a deliberate campaign against children but allowed by the widespread ignorance that is abetted by the legal conspiracy of silence about pesticides, their toxic ingredients, both disclosed and undisclosed, and about where and when they are used.
The current MASSPIRG ballot initiative, the Children’s Protection Act, is a step towards a public policy based on an ethic of community and integrity instead of the secrecy and the deception that characterizes the use of pesticides.
The CPA would prohibit the use of most pesticides when children are in school or daycare, require notification and record keeping when pesticides are used, and promote Integrated Pest Management, a better planning and management system that would help schools prevent pest problems.
I agree with EPA Administrator Carol Browner who wrote, “Only when we have protected our children from toxic threats can we be sure that we are providing adequate public health protection for all Americans.” I believe that the Children’s Protection Act is a step toward a better vision of community and pubic accountability. It will protect children’s healthy development and benefit us all. Thank you.
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Ellie Goldberg, MEd, is founder of www.healthy-kids.info, a consulting service promoting health and educational equity for students with asthma and other chronic health conditions. Ellie is also Co-Chair of the Committee for Alternatives to Pesticides of the Green Decade Coalition/Newton.