New research conducted by the California Department of Health suggests a link between autism and in utero exposure to endosulfan and dicofol, organochlorine pesticides that are banned in many countries, but still used in the United States. The study, published by Environmental Health Perspectives, is the first to explore the connection between maternal residential exposure to organochlorine pesticides at different concentrations during key periods of gestation and risk of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) in children. ASD risk increased with poundage of organochlorine applied and decreased with distance from field sites. The study concludes that risk for ASD was consistently associated with residential proximity to organochlorine pesticide applications during critical periods of embryonic development. The study also states that the possibility of a connection requires further study.
Many pesticides, rodenticides and other toxins applied in public spaces operate on the nervous system of the targeted pest. The application tends to be around base boards/floors where younger children spend much more time than adults or older children making them more vulnerable to the effects of these neurotoxins Over time these chemicals can have particularly negative effects for students with special needs who often have immune system deficits or nervous systems that have already been injured in some way. The effects of neurotoxins in schools, in my opinion, is factor that is rarely considered when IEP teams convene to consider behavioral or learning issues. Only the most obvious situations, like overgrowth of toxic molds, are ever even considered as a problem typically because the effects are widespread and not subtle.
According to Science Week pesticide poisoning is a commonly under diagnosed illness in the U.S. and can resemble acute upper respiratory tract illness, conjunctivitis, and gastrointestinal illness. Studies have also shown a 50-70% increased risk for Parkinson's Disease with exposure to herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides. Exposure to chemicals, including pesticides can cause multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a disorder which is triggered by exposure to chemicals in the environment. Use of chemicals in schools can prevent children who have MCS from having access to a mainstream education. For example, two children in Maryland were forced to attend a home school program when their school was being reroofed and sprayed with pesticide.
(case law 18 IDELR 1041).
With back to school right around the corner what can we do to protect our children? Some schools and other public buildings have adopted an integrated pest management strategy (IPM) Download IPM.doc to eliminate both pests and the use of toxic chemicals. IPM requires the least toxic means of eradicating pests such as ensuring proper sanitation procedures, completing necessary repairs and maintenance, and eliminating sources of food and water. According to Science Week (see link above) there are no federal regulations limiting the use of pesticides in schools, however many states have developed their own set of guidelines. For example, in Illinois SB 529 signed by Governor Ryan in 1999 requires public schools to conduct an IPM program rather than rely on routine chemical applications. Monroe County in Indiana reduced their pesticide use by 92% and saved such a substantial amount of money they were able to hire a district-wide coordinator to oversee pest management in their schools.
The National School IPM Information Source offers advice to parents who want to start or ensure IPM in their child's school. The site suggests educating yourself, getting the PTA involved, getting an IPM policy statement adopted, establishing a pilot IPM program, and establishing a school IPM committee. It also reminds parents that implementation can take up to a year. The site offers advice for administrators, pest managers, and faculty. There are links available showing what different states are doing in regards to this important topic. Get back to school healthy this year, log on and find out where your state stands, ask questions at school and get involved. Here are some proactive steps that parents can adopt to advocate for a more healthful and conducive environment for learning:
- Inquire as to the amount of toxins that are applied and the budget for such items;
- Introduce the concept of IPM which for many schools will be new but can be presented as a win-win since as seen in Indiana there can be a significant cost savings;
- Research other schools in your state that have IPM plans in place and present those as a model to work from;
- Find out what the application schedule is for your school and consider keeping your child home during peak periods and possibly seek home-bound services if there is medical backing for this position;
- If you you suspect that your child is suffering the effect of neurotoxins exposure consider medical testing.
The effects of neurotoxins on students can be an important consideration in understanding learning and behavioral problems, but in many situations no one has taken the time to even consider it. Remember as schools are getting their buildings ready for back to school, application of pesticides may very well be on the list of tasks to be done before school opens again. Add IPM to the many acronyms that parents carry around in their heads and should be an item for which parents advocate.