Maryland Approves Pesticide Law:
Elementary Schools Must Advise Parents Before Spraying

By Peter S. Goodman
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
April 16, 1998

Public elementary schools throughout Maryland soon will be required to inform parents in writing at least a day before they apply pesticides inside school buildings under a law adopted in the final hours of this year's General Assembly session in Annapolis.

In passing the law, Maryland's lawmakers placed the state at the forefront of a growing national movement aimed at ultimately curbing the use of pesticides, some of which contain toxins linked to a range of health problems, including cancer and birth defects.

No other state has passed a law forcing schools to notify parents of its pesticide plans, according to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, though San Francisco recently adopted a similar law and banned several pesticides from school buildings.

"This represents a critical move to educate and inform parents about potential adverse impacts on the health of their children," said Jay Feldman, executive director of the coalition.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Chesapeake program director for the environmental group Clean Water Action, said she hopes that the new law, which takes effect this fall, will encourage school officials to limit their use of pesticides.

The bill was sponsored by Del. Joan Pitkin (D-Prince George's) and supported by an amalgam of environmental advocacy groups, labor unions and medical associations. In a strongly worded letter of support, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) called the bill "a small price to pay to help protect the health of children."

But the bill was opposed by the pesticide industry, which feared it would unfairly demonize its products, and by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which argued that the bill amounted to an unfunded mandate that would complicate efforts to protect children from the potentially harmful effects of pests such as roaches and rats.

"We use pesticides because we do care about children's health," said the association's executive director, Sue Buswell. "To notify every parent of a safe and prudent use of a pesticide is probably an unnecessary cost."

Buswell said most schools already provide parents with advance notification when they specifically request it -- say, if they have a child who is clearly allergic to certain chemicals.

Moreover, most schools already are seeking to limit their use of pesticides by undercutting the conditions that breed pests -- cleaning kitchens and eliminating litter, for example.

Those arguments carried the day for the last three legislative sessions and, each year, the bill died in the House Environmental Matters Committee. But this year, a compromise was struck. Environmentalists agreed to limit to elementary schools the requirement that all parents be notified about planned pesticide use.

In middle and high schools, parents and staff have the option of asking to be notified, in which case school officials are obligated to do so. Proponents also agreed to limit the law to cases where pesticides are applied inside school buildings, striking language that included outdoor applications as well.

"That's major, because if children are, say, playing soccer outside, they can end up rolling in the grass where pesticides were sprayed," said Ruth Berlin, founder of the Maryland Pesticide Network.

She said her son, now 12, suffered an allergic reaction three years ago that sent him into shock when he was exposed to a pesticide called safrotin at his private school in Annapolis. Safrotin is used to kill ants and roaches.

The bill was further altered when it reached the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. Environmentalists agreed to cut the required advance notice from 48 hours to 24 hours.

Despite the compromises, those seeking to limit use of pesticides called the bill a significant accomplishment.

"There's a basic essential piece in there that we're really happy with," Berlin said. "It's a wonderful first step."

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