Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: Syracuse Post-Standard

Bill before New York state lawmakers would ban use of pesticides on school playing fields


Posted: April 20, 2010
Originally Published: April 20, 2010

Syracuse, NY -- Children race out of their classrooms onto green, fluffy grass playing fields. They tumble and slide, roll around and laugh. Their pants turn green from grass stains. They rub their eyes and faces. They drop water bottles and snacks onto the lawn.

The lush grass helps to protect their knees from scrapes and guards them against serious injury. But the grass also could make them sick, according to environmental advocates and numerous scientific studies.

Many schools in the state use pesticides on their athletic fields to kill bugs, pests and weeds. A number of scientific studies have shown that exposure to pesticides can increase children’s risk for cancer, exacerbate asthma and trigger seizures.

Environmental advocates are lobbying state lawmakers to ban pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on playgrounds and athletic fields in public and private schools and at day care centers. The Legislature is expected to debate the bill today as part of a package of Earth Day legislation. It’s not clear if it will pass. It has died in the state Senate nine times before.

Chemical companies are pressing lawmakers to vote against the bill. They say pesticides are highly regulated and safe to use.

Children are especially susceptible to pesticides because of their small size and still-developing organs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Rather than a purely chemical approach, the agency recommends schools use Integrated Pest Management, which combines several more organic and less toxic techniques to manage pests and weeds, such as overseeding, mowing grass taller, watering less and applying “compost tea,” a liquefied form of compost.

“Put simply, IPM is a safer, and usually less costly option for effective pest management in a school community,” EPA regulators said.

A 2000 study by the state attorney general’s office, the most recent available, found that 87 percent of schools in New York use pesticides, with almost 65 percent using pesticides outdoors.

Central New York may be ahead of the curve. “Most schools (in this area) don’t use pesticides or herbicides,” North Syracuse School District grounds crew leader Jim Popielarczyk said.

Popielarczyk said his district used herbicides on a few infested fields four or five years ago, but it has since stayed away from chemical treatments. “We’ve had no trouble and our fields are beautiful,” said Wayne Bleau, North Syracuse’s assistant superintendent for management services.

However, some local districts continue to use chemicals. “Our board’s policy recognizes the dangers of pesticides, but at the same time realizes there are cases where we might have to use something,” said Joe Hammond, director of facilities for Liverpool Central School District.

Hammond said Liverpool’s grounds crew spreads a granular “weed and feed” once or twice a year. “We use it very sparingly,” he said. “We have 36 grass fields. We might do one or two fields per year.”

Hammond said school officials notify neighbors, post flyers and put up flags when they are going to use the pesticides. They also spread it only when schools are closed for at least 72 hours.

Environmental advocates for years have been trying to ban pesticides on school grounds. The legislation usually passes the Assembly. Last year, its members voted 129-7 in favor of it, with support of every Central New York lawmaker. But the bill died in the Senate.

Environmental advocates hope this is the year it will pass both chambers. Its sponsors, Assemblyman Steve Englebright, D-Setauket, and Sen. Brian Foley, D-Blue Point, have narrowed the bill’s scope. Schools will still be able to use chemical treatments to combat pests such as rats and mosquitoes, and pesticides will be banned only on playing fields and playgrounds, not surrounding green areas.

Bill Cooke, of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said last week that 28 of the 32 Democratic senators have committed to voting in favor of it. Cooke said most Republican senators are opposed. The bill needs 32 votes to pass.

Sens. Darrel Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, and David Valesky, D-Oneida, said Monday they were undecided. “I agree with the intent of the legislation, to help protect our children from exposure to harmful chemicals,” Valesky said. “However, I understand the concerns that have been raised by lawn care professionals. I plan to weigh those concerns and discuss this legislation in depth with my colleagues before making a final decision.”

Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, did not return calls for comment. He voted against the bill April 7 in the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee.

Scott Reif, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said, “A number of groups have raised serious concerns about the bill as it is currently drafted, including that it is an unfunded mandate on school districts.”

Schools would see a slight increase in cost during the first two years of IPM, but after the third year, the price would fall about 25 percent below the costs of chemical lawn treatment, according to a study by Grassroots Environmental Education, a nonprofit public health advocacy group in Nassau County. That group has offered free training to school groundskeepers on ways to care for fields without pesticides.

The bill is supported by the state Association for Superintendents of School Buildings and Grounds. But the state School Boards Association opposes the bill in the belief that school districts should choose their own lawn-care methods.

Chemical companies and landscapers also oppose the legislation. “It’s not a good decision to leave schools open to pests,” said Karen Reardon, spokeswoman for Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, a lobbying group of pest management companies, fertilizer associations and lawn care professionals.

Reardon posed an example: Schools could face liability if, because they forgo pesticides, bees infest a field, an allergic child gets stung, goes into anaphylactic shock and dies. She challenged studies showing negative health effects linked to pesticides saying, “If such conditions were happening, the EPA would simply not register those products for use.”

Pest management companies and organizations have donated more than $23,000 to lawmakers over the past decade, while landscaping and lawn care groups have donated $11,500. Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has given $12,000 to legislators over the past five years, while Monsanto, an international seed, herbicide and pesticide company, has donated almost $36,000 since 2000.

Valesky received $1,000 from Monsanto from 2007 to 2009, state financial disclosure reports show. Aubertine received $500. The company also gave $3,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee last year. It has given $7,500 to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee over the past four years.