.Local Districts Move to Ban Chemical Pesticides and Herbicides from Schools

Following the lead of an innovative and successful program on the Cal campus, local schools are adopting integrated pest management methods

Art Slater likes to tell the story of the million-dollar rat that once visited UC Berkeley. It was just an ordinary rat, a common pest at a large institution. But the rodent found its way into a transformer on the campus and touched just the wrong surface at just the wrong time, shorting out circuits and causing a million-dollar mess.

Slater tells this story because it illustrates the importance of his job. For 28 years, Slater was UC Berkeley’s bug man. Before he arrived at Berkeley, the university’s way of dealing with bugs and night crawlers was to spray–early and often. But Slater, armed with nothing more than a few baits and household implements, reduced both spraying and the bug population to nearly nothing, making Berkeley an early model of what is now known as Integrated Pest Management. He proved that deadly chemicals are not necessary for effective results. Thirty years later, the idea is catching on–especially at school districts, as parents learn more about the disruptive and damaging possibilities of the deadly elixirs traditionally used to kill pests.

Slater was a graduate student in entomology at Berkeley in 1973 when his grant money began to wear thin and he started to look for a job. One in particular caught his eye: a position in the university’s own environmental health and safety department in charge of pest control. He applied and got the job in exactly one week. But the job had changed a little from its previous incarnation. In the past, pest control meant showing up every other week and dousing a building with whatever chemical proved effective for two weeks–the most common ones were diazon and deodorized kerosene. But pesticides had caught the attention of a campus committee on pest management, made up of faculty and employees, who worried that pesticides could skew research results. Slater’s task was to modernize the pest-control program.

He says that the committee was right to be worried about the spraying program. “You can’t spray one spot and the spray stays there,” he says. “The spray moves all over creation.” For example, Slater points to a researcher in North Carolina who experimented with spray movement. He sprayed the basement of a four-story house, then followed the chemicals as they drifted upward, saturating the house until they reached the attic. But if Slater couldn’t spray, how could he control the legions of cockroaches, ants, beetles, rats, and pigeons which, along with 32,000 students and thousands more faculty and employees, call the university home?

The solution, Slater says, was as simple as boric acid and soap. He set baits for the cockroaches, cleaned up ant trails with soap, and netted the eaves of buildings for pigeons. And it worked. By 1979, Slater says, “we had reduced our pesticide usage by 94 percent in our 4,300 housing units, and by 99 percent in the research areas on campus.”

It got trickier as time went on. When a particularly virulent breed of cockroach resistant to boric acid baits took up residence in the buildings–the brownbanded cockroach, to be exact–Slater had to search for another nonspray solution. He hit upon one of the brownbanded cockroach’s natural predators–a tiny parasitic wasp that feeds on the pest’s eggs. He released the wasps directly into the research buildings–“campus buildings that had millions of dollars of research in them,” he recalls. And the wasps themselves died off when they became too adept at wiping out the cockroach population. That kind of solution shocked academic onlookers. “Here we were, not using sprays at all and getting tremendous results while these other articles were coming out saying that you had to use sprays, or that you couldn’t do [Integrated Pest Management] inside buildings,” Slater says. “If you get too far ahead of the future, you are on the lunatic fringe. Well,” he adds with a chuckle, “we were definitely beyond the lunatic fringe.”

Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, is not a complete ban on pesticides. Rather, it’s a system that calls for a series of increasing responses to a pest, always starting with the least toxic possibility. “A lot of IPM is like preventive medicine,” Slater explains. “You eat right so you don’t get problems from eating wrong later.” IPM aims to prevent the pest problem in the first place, rather than spraying the results later. This means thinking like the bug–where are the warm and cozy nooks in the building? What windows leave wide-open entryways for bugs? “You can look at ant problems as a result of what kinds of plants are in your yard,” Slater says. “If I want to study ants, I will plant pine trees around the school and have as many ants as I want to study. But if I don’t want ants, I won’t plant pine and citrus, I’ll select plants that aren’t favorable to the development of ant problems.” There are even architectural design elements that can make homes more pest resistant; while Slater was at Berkeley he taught a three-hour course to prospective architects on design features and pest problems. “If you’re an architect, you’re designing a habitat that can support or cannot support pests,” Slater explains. “You’re literally controlling what’s going to happen.” Some cities, like Honolulu and Sydney, even require houses to be built on four inches of sand, which discourages termites from taking up residence in structures.

Slater has helped to make an IPM model out of the Berkeley campus, and has proven that IPM can lead to increased cost efficiency as well. “In 1974, there was a person whose job was cockroach control in the life sciences building,” he says. “Her full-time, forty-hour-a-week job was cockroach control in one building. Last year she was in charge of all pest control in the 213 central campus buildings. And she was only getting two to three cockroach complaints a month.”

Despite the UC Berkeley model, many school districts just a few miles away from Cal are still practicing the same old spray regimens for their pest problems. But several districts are slowly but surely changing their ways. The Berkeley Unified School District was one of the earliest to do away with pesticides for good. And Albany Unified School District recently changed from spraying pesticides to an informal IPM program, thanks in large part to the efforts of a group of parents concerned about spraying on school grounds. Dorothea Dorenz, a member of the Albany Coalition for Environmental Health, says that the outcry began when children started getting ill after pesticide applications. “Two years ago, some of our students were running on Cougar Field, and they got sick because the district was spraying Roundup,” Dorenz recalls. “The school district immediately stopped using it.” The Albany coalition’s latest fight is over the UC-owned Gill Tract, a plot of land used for research purposes that sits right next to Ocean View Elementary School. Although the university practices IPM with regard to pest management, it still resorts to sprays of herbicides like Roundup for maintaining its grounds, including the Gill Tract. The coalition took its complaints to UC and the Albany school board; the board passed a resolution against the use of Roundup, and Superintendent Gary Mills says he expects a letter from UC regarding its policy on spraying herbicides soon.

And in Oakland, a three-year struggle to cap pesticide-use in the Oakland Unified School District could come to a close this month. Mark Rendón, a teacher at Franklin Year-Round Elementary School, first noticed a problem in 1998, when he had difficulty getting information from the district regarding which pesticides it used on its campuses, and when. That spurred him to push for adoption of an IPM program. He helped to form a coalition of parents, teachers, and environmentalists, dubbed the Coalition for a Healthy Oakland School Environment (CHOSE), last year. Catherine Porter of the Women’s Cancer Resource Center is also a member of CHOSE. “The Oakland school district is responsive,” she says, “but they continue to use pesticides.”

A recent state bill may help environmentalists and parent activists in their efforts to get districts to adopt IPMs. The Healthy Schools Act of 2000 requires school districts to mail home notices of their pesticide policies once every school year or, to parents who specifically request it, every time they spray. Also, they must post notices at the spray sites, and keep records of all pesticide sprayings for four years. The law further requires that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation promote IPMs in schools. Although the law stops short of requiring schools to have IPM programs, Slater believes it’s an important first step. “As parents become more knowledgeable about this sort of thing, they’re not going to allow potentially risky applications of material [on school grounds],” he says. “The main pressure on districts will be if they use sprays and announce it and then parents keep kids out of school. Then the districts would lose money. I think that can be a real driver for districts right there.”

“It’s a very first step,” Rendón says of the act. “It is important that at least we’re saying now that parents and the public have the right to know when pesticides are being applied that could harm their children, but it’s a long way from saying we are not going to use any pesticides.”

The Oakland School Board’s Business and Finance Committee discussed the issue this week and recommended adoption to the school board, which will hear it this Wednesday. Rendón is glad that the matter will come before the school board before the school year ends, so that over the summer an IPM committee can implement the program before the new school year. And although the draft of the IPM plan that is being circulated now doesn’t include a complete ban on pesticides, it requires the district to use the least toxic brand around.

Slater is now retired, and he spends his time speaking to groups and organizations that are interested in ending pesticide use. He recently addressed the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council, which voted to draft a letter to the West Contra Costa Unified School District urging the district to take a close look at implementing an IPM program there. And although he says he’s not a crusader for the IPM cause, he’s definitely a disciple. “IPM is not a better Raid,” he says. “Some people think that IPM is posting that they are going to use sprays, and then posting that they did use sprays. To me, IPM is getting rid of sprays.” But he has no doubt that once school districts and other institutions see the value of using IPM, especially the cost-effectiveness of it, they will see the light and change their spraying ways. “It hasn’t become a religion yet,” Slater notes, “but the commandments are getting put together.”


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