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Bill targets schools' use of pesticides

In Sarasota County, a mother pulled her son out of school after, she said, he was "poisoned" by pesticide spraying.

In North Florida's Wakulla County, a family tried to sue the school district after their son became a "bubble boy" _ so severely allergic to everything that he had to be isolated in a sterile environment. The family blamed school pesticide spraying.

Some districts, including Pinellas, are cutting back on spraying. They are focusing on sanitation and other common-sense measures and using chemicals as a last resort.

Now the issue of pesticide spraying in schools is getting attention from state lawmakers.

A measure filed in both the House and Senate would require schools to post notices before applying pesticides in school buildings. It is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. William Turner, D-Miami Shores, and in the House by Reps. Harry Goode, D-Melbourne, and Durell Peaden, D-Crestview.

"I hope that it will make us more aware of the toxicity of these chemicals, and we'll educate the public as well as (school) employees," said Peaden, who is a physician.

The measure would require schools to keep strict records, develop pest control plans and give parents notice about pesticide use. Parents who have allergic children would be able to list them on a special registry, kept at the school.

"What we hope is that parents will influence the schools in how they manage pesticides," said Paolo Annino, a Florida State University law professor who worked on the Wakulla County case for FSU's Children's Advocacy Center. The lawsuit was dropped when the family moved away.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the legislation.

"That's a Band-Aid," said Ann Mason, who spearheaded a 1989 state law to require posting after pesticide spraying in Florida. "That's telling you that your child is going to be exposed in school. We need to go farther than that."

Several states, including Louisiana, Texas and California, have right-to-know laws for school pesticide spraying. The Louisiana law was passed after a school district had to pay damages to children exposed when a janitor sprayed an outdated pesticide _ not for indoor use _ in school, Annino said.

"Children should never be exposed to these toxic chemicals," said Nancy Rogers, the Sarasota mother who now teaches her 7-year-old boy, Andrew, at home. "This can happen to any child."

John Mello, who oversees pest control at the Sarasota County schools, denies that Andrew Rogers was poisoned at school.

"We have not applied any pesticides in the classroom that her child was in or in the building her child was in this year," Mello said.

He said school officials did treat outside for fire ants and wasps, but it was done "under controlled circumstances."

"It's not done indiscriminately when kids are on the playground," Mello said.

Rogers said Andrew is sensitive to pesticides sprayed anywhere _ inside or outdoors.

Supporters of the legislation say children are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals, because safe exposure standards are set for adults. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing pesticide standards to include children.

"I want kids to be safe and secure in the school as well as home and community," Turner said. "Most people never even thought of this affecting their kids."

Children who are exposed can have breathing problems, nausea, headaches, weakness and exhaustion.

Some school districts are limiting pesticide use. In Pinellas County, the district changed its pest management policy about three years ago, said Mike Guild, pesticide control supervisor for the School Board.

"We don't go in and spray on a calendar basis anymore," Guild said. "Quite a few years ago, we'd have guys come in and spray in the kitchen, and around all the baseboards.

"Now, we don't spray inside. We use baits and dusts. When we do a treatment, a lot of it is just inspection and we write up sanitation reports."

The new approach uses heavy doses of common sense, such as keeping food properly covered, blocking holes in walls and windows and washing surfaces often. Pesticide applicators work after hours, and if they spray outside, they post warnings.

"It's not that we don't use pesticides at all. There's some times when you don't have any choices," Guild said.

Guild said the new approach is more labor-intensive and costs more than monthly spraying.

"The cheapest thing in the world is to buy a gallon of Dursban and dilute it and spray it," Guild said. "But this is one of the things that's worth the cost."