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Schools seek less toxic ways to battle pests

The joke around Boulder’s Fairview High School used to be that the mouse infestation was so long-running and so pervasive that the mice were learning to read.
In the old days, the solution would have been dousing the school with a healthy dose of pesticide. But Boulder Valley School officials haven’t ordered a pesticide application in any school in the district in more than a year and a half. Instead, they turned to some more basic strategies.

They enlisted the staff in a schoolwide campaign to make the school less mouse-friendly. They cleaned out stacks of rubbish, cardboard boxes and other materials that made good mouse nests. They cracked down on food being left out in classrooms or in the cafeteria. They plugged holes and installed better-fitting door sweeps to form mouse-resistant barriers.

“It’s been working well,” said Steve Hoban, director of operations, security and environmental services for the district. “I haven’t gotten any calls from the principal saying the mice are prevalent. Is it mouse-free? No. But the mouse population is under control enough that it doesn’t disrupt the learning environment like it did in the past.”

Focus on prevention instead of pesticides

Boulder Valley – like Denver and a growing number of Colorado school districts – is embracing a different approach to managing mice, bugs and weeds. It’s called Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and it emphasizes preventing pest infestation in the first place, and then using multiple strategies – and the least toxic means possible – to get rid of pests who do move in. Pesticides are to be a weapon of last resort.

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While Colorado as a whole has been slow to get on the IPM bandwagon, both health and environmental experts say it’s high time more schools moved in that direction.

It was almost 20 years ago that a National Research Council report documented that children are more profoundly affected by pesticide exposure than adults. They breathe more rapidly, have a faster metabolism, are lower to the ground and, because adults don’t often roll around on the floor or in the grass, are substantially more likely to get pesticide residue on themselves and their clothing.

Yet pesticides remain widely used today in schools and daycare facilities. The list of pesticide-related illnesses in schools is long and sobering. Even at low levels, exposure to pesticides can cause nausea, dizziness, asthma, respiratory problems, headaches, rashes and disorientation.

One government survey found more than 2,300 documented pesticide poisonings in schools between 1993-1996. Since then, other studies continue to raise alarms.

In the past 10 years, many states have adopted laws to address pesticide use at schools, including restrictions on what, when and where pesticides can be used; mandatory written notifications to students, parents and staff before a pesticide application; posted warning signs both inside and outside; and mandatory adoption of IPM practices.

Colorado law, however, places no restrictions on pesticide use in schools, other than requiring that signs be posted outside after application.

CSU grant targets pests in schools

“There are pest problems in the schools,” said Assefa Gebre-Amlak, a Colorado State University Extension Service pest-management specialist. “And because of that, schools and school districts tend to use a very traditional approach to pest control … In some cases, they don’t even consider whether they currently have a pest problem. They just go ahead and spray.”

But a move is afoot to teach schools a better way. Three years ago, the CSU Extension Service got a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to survey schools about their pesticide use, and to launch a pilot IPM program in districts that were interested.

The first district to accept was Boulder Valley, and Fairview – and its mice – became the first target. An IPM team went into the school, documented the extent of the problem and came up with a list of recommendations, which it gave to Hoban. The next step was to have been training the staff in the principles of IPM.

“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” Gebre-Amlak said. “There were just too many other priorities.”

Hoban acknowledges that the district still has a long way to go.

“We don’t have the resources at hand to suddenly snap our fingers and arrive at IPM Shangri-la,” he said. “But we’ve taken some steps. We’ve done some training with all our custodians, but there’s more that we need to do.”

He said teachers aren’t going out and buying bug spray or poison bait and taking matters into their own hands, as they once did.

“People are calling like they should, and we’re responding to issues as they come up,” he said. “But we’d like to get more pro-active and less reactive. It takes time to re-educate people and really change a culture.”

Pests battle for priority with school leaders

The following year, the CSU team moved on to two schools in Sterling, a district that regularly sprayed with pesticides. The IPM experts again identified the extent of the pest problem and developed an extensive list of specific recommendations.

But following a change in school administration, the new principal seemed much less interested in abandoning old practices and in investing the time to train the staff in the most time-consuming IPM methods.

“The schools appreciate what we are trying to do,” Gebre-Amlak said. “The problem is they have so many other priorities and this requires some time, and they’re concerned it will cost them money to implement, and so they lose interest.

“But this is not just about time or money,” he added. “It’s about the health of kids. Long-term IPM is the best method, and it can be cheaper than pesticides.

“You need training and understanding, you need to monitor the problem and check things like sanitation and exclusion, which are things that can be done by anybody. We can teach students to be aware of keeping their school clean.”

Denver’s father-son pest-tackling team

In Denver, schools have been practicing IPM for many years and unlike other districts, have two full-time pest control specialists on staff – Roger Reyes and his son, Elijah.

Pest-management specialist Elijah Reyes installs a door sweep at Denver's Dora Moore School.

Pest-management specialist Elijah Reyes installs a door sweep at Denver’s Dora Moore School.

One recent morning, the father and son were at Dora Moore Elementary, installing door sweeps and plugging holes with copper wool to thwart mice seeking to get in from the cold and snow outside. The historic Denver school, which opened in 1890, has had persistent mouse problems for years, and as with any 120-year-old building, mouse-sized holes are common.

“The easy thing to do would be just set some bait stations,” Roger Reyes said. “But we don’t want to do that. We know that pesticides can trigger asthma attacks in kids and staff as well, and it just creates a better learning environment not to use them.”

Another historic Denver school – with an equally long history of mouse problems – is Ebert. In the last couple of years, the school’s staff has embraced IPM.

“Since a year ago, we haven’t used an ounce of pesticide there,” Reyes said.

Bedbugs an increasing concern for schools

Bedbugs are an increasing concern in Denver – as in all school districts – but so far, all is mostly quiet on the bedbug front, said Matt Smidt, senior maintenance supervisor for DPS.

Teachers are finding bites on their students, but very few of the bugs themselves. Even so, bedbug-related calls have shot up from an average of one a month to four or five a month, he said.

“At one school, a teacher found some bedbug bites on a student and got very upset and wanted the school fumigated,” Smidt said. “The school nurse sent notes home with all the kids telling their parents to wash their clothes in hot water and do all this stuff that’s out there for bedbugs. But this all happened before they contacted my shop.

“When we responded, we investigated and couldn’t find any signs of bedbug infestation, and no one had actually seen an insect in the school. Usually, a child may come from home with some bedbug bites, and this teacher was concerned about other kids getting them. But the important thing is to have a trained professional investigate.”

Prevention cheaper in the long run?

Back at CSU, Deborah Young, professor of bioagricultural sciences and pest management, has taken over the IPM grant program and is trying to get more schools interested in actively promoting the concept. She admits it’s slow going.

“I think one of the drawbacks is that schools are strapped financially,” she said. “To go in and say ‘We want you to do something new,’ well, one of the first things the administration asks is ‘What will it cost?’ ”

Young is working on putting together a database to prove that over the long run, IPM will actually be cheaper than old-fashioned pesticide spraying.

“The more schools we have signed up to do IPM, we’ll be able to track those schools and their work orders, and just see how many times they’ve had to put it ant bait or spray for wasps,” she said.

“We’d like to show that if we invest in preventive techniques that yes, there is some initial expense but over five years you’ll save money. I think that argument will be really powerful.”