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Source: Legislative Gazette

Movement on pesticide ban bill ignites debate


Posted: April 5, 2010
Originally Published: April 5, 2010

After nine years of deliberations, legislation that would ban the use of certain pesticides on school and daycare grounds is advancing through the state Legislature.

Environmental groups are pushing for passage of the legislation, arguing organic turf management would cost school districts less than chemical treatment does while eliminating the health risks associated with pesticides.

School administration and trade groups have a different opinion and are advocating school district autonomy.

The Democrat-sponsored bill gained hesitant Republican support during a Senate Environmental Conversation Committee hearing March 25, when ranking committee member Sen. Carl Marcellino, R-Oyster Bay, voted to move the bill out of committee, but without recommendation.

"The bill as proposed [last Thursday] was flawed, it was not well written," said Marcellino, adding that the bill as proposed gave disproportionate protection to public school children.

Before it was amended, the Senate bill would have allowed public school boards to allow pesticide use in the event of an emergency. The bill was unfair, according to Marcellino, because private and parochial schools and daycares do not have school boards.

"I want to protect every child's health, not just kids in public school, but kids in private school too," said Marcellino. "I voted without recommendation because the bill was not amended that day." The Senate bill was amended on March 29.

Recommendation or not, the bipartisan support is encouraging to members of environmental groups who are hoping this will be the year the Child Safe Playing Fields Act will be signed into law. Bills A.7937-b and S.4983-c have been in the works since 2001.

Specifically, the bills prohibit various types of "aesthetic" pesticides from being used on public and private school and daycare grounds, allowing their use only for emergency situations such as a poison ivy or West Nile virus outbreak.

The Assembly bill is sponsored by Steve Englebright, D-Setauket, and the Senate bill is sponsored by Brian Foley, D-Blue Point. Though the two bills are currently not the same, the Assembly is working on amending its version to mirror the Senate's, according to Foley's communication director, Ibrahim Khan.

In their current states, the Assembly bill would amend only Education Law, while the Senate bill amends both Education and Social Services Law. The Assembly version does not take into account specific provisions for agricultural schools, nor does it contain language precisely prohibiting the use of pesticides on playgrounds and playing fields.

"[The Senate version] has the language that is needed to pass," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

The legislation stems from concerns that pesticide use causes short- and long-term health problems, especially in children. According to a statement released by Citizen's Union, there is a "growing body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence" linking long-term pesticide use to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, learning disabilities and neurological disabilities, and short-term use to headaches, nausea, dizziness, asthma and seizures.

"These are unnecessary and unwarranted chemicals," said Esposito. "You can live with a dandelion; you can't live with the pesticides."

But according to Karen Reardon, director of communications at the Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, people can live with the pesticides. RISE is a not-for-profit trade association that represents producers and suppliers of specialty pesticides and fertilizers.

There's no scientific evidence to support those claims … they're simply not true," said Reardon. "New Yorkers and everyone in the country can take comfort to know the products are safe because they go through a rigorous review process."

According to Reardon, all pesticides used in New York must go through scientific and regulatory review from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Bill Cooke, director of government relations at Citizen's Campaign, disagrees. "The [pesticide] industry would have you think that because the EPA permits these they must be safe," said Cooke. "That is a complete lie."

"There are literally hundreds of peer-reviewed published studies that link pesticide use to damage and disease," said Cooke. "This is not a he-said, she-said issue. There is no discord; there is no disagreement."

Reardon defended pesticide use, citing nature-related ailments such as asthma, poison ivy, bee stings, allergens, Lyme disease, and various mosquito-borne diseases as the major reason for pesticide use.

"There's no such thing as an aesthetic pesticide. They're all functional," said Reardon. "It's very challenging to tackle some of these pests manually."

But according to representatives from Grassroots Environmental Education, a science-based, nonprofit environmental organization, "manual" organic turf management is an effective, easy, nontoxic and cost-saving alternative to chemical programs.

A report released by Grassroots found that although organic turf management costs more in the first two years, the soil quality improves over time and therefore requires less management in the future.

"If you treat a lawn with chemicals, it becomes like a drug addicted person," said Doug Wood, associate director of Grassroots and co-author of the report. "There will be a transition period, but eventually the lawn will have the nutrients to pretty much sustain itself."

The report estimates that over time, the annual cost of organic programs can be as much as 25 percent lower than the cost of management programs that use pesticides.

Barbara Bradley, deputy director of communications at the New York State School Boards Association, said even if organic programs cost less, it should be up to the local school district to decide whether to use pesticides.

"Let them continue to decide how and when to treat, and with what," said Bradley. "Don't add another unfunded mandate to what they have already."

"[Schools] are required to let parents of their students know when they are [applying pesticides]," Bradley continued. "They know the circumstances and the interests of the local community."

Bradley said she does not agree with environmental groups' claims that pesticide use leads to brain damage in children, saying she has seen no statistical proof.

"Some people just don't like regulation. They just don't like being told what to do," said Wood. "I can sympathize with that, but in this case I don't think a facilities director, someone with no training in environmental health, should be making decisions about things that affect the health and safety of children."

The Assembly's version of the bill was amended March 26, and is currently in its Environmental Conservation Committee. The recently amended Senate bill was forwarded to the Codes Committee on March 29.