A Bug's Life

Insects and other pests are a part of every environment, no matter what the weather or climate. Consequently, few would argue the need to control these pests, especially in and around schools. Cockroaches, ants, wasps, head lice and rodents-the pests most commonly found in schools-do more than disrupt the learning environment. These pests pose serious health threats to children. For example, cockroach droppings exacerbate asthma, particularly in children. Ants can transmit Staph and Strep infections, and rodents can transmit Hantavirus, a deadly respiratory infection.

Growing concern about the use of pesticides in schools has prompted debate, at state and local levels, about the most effective control methods. For instance, parents in Milwaukee's Fox Point-Bayside School District banned the use of herbicides to control poison ivy and other weeds. However, the decision was reversed when a student had to undergo a 22-day course of steroids to treat a poison-ivy rash.

In neighboring Illinois, the Task Force on Pesticides and Children's Health (TFPCH) is taking a different approach. This coalition of parents, educators, physicians, pest-control specialists and legislators is working to reduce pesticide exposure by making Integrated Pest Management (IPM) mandatory in all Illinois schools. According to the task force, IPM is a "safer, more effective alternative to routine pesticide spraying."

In Gwinnett County, Ga., IPM reduced pesticide costs by 40 percent in the first four years with no reduction in program effectiveness. "During the same period, the number of schools and students increased by almost 20 percent," says Martin Taylor, environmental coordinator for the public school system in northeastern metro Atlanta.

Reducing potential liability Student and faculty complaints of unexplainable symptoms at Community Consolidated School District 181, Hinsdale, Ill., forced the examination of numerous factors, including pest control. Although the symptoms were not attributable to pesticide use, Sue Kamuda, facilities director, now takes an integrated approach to pest management.

While there is general agreement on the value of IPM, opinions differ as to whether the program should be voluntary or mandatory. One consideration is the cost of implementing an IPM program. IPM prevents pest infestations by modifying and repairing structures to eliminate the resources pests need for survival, and this may result in a significant capital expenditure.

However, practical solutions in some school districts have helped alleviate these high costs. For instance, one Chicago school building was plagued by yellowjacket wasps that were swarming around a doorway. The insects were attracted to the garbage dumpster just outside the door. The most effective, long-term solution was to pour a concrete pad and move the dumpster 50 feet. Another school district solved a weed-control problem without incurring any expense. Groundskeepers had been spraying a herbicide along a fence line where it was not feasible to mow. The best long-term solution was to dig a channel, line it with black plastic, and then fill it with gravel. The gravel was donated, and students supplied the labor as an Earth Day project. Kamuda says IPM does not cost more, it costs differently.

"Many IPM techniques are just good maintenance practices that we should be employing anyway and rightfully belong in the maintenance budget," she says. To address the issue of funding, TFPCH is proposing legislation that will create a loan and grant program for Illinois schools. Modeled after the Illinois recycling loan and grant fund, the program would help schools with IPM program startup costs.

Establishing a program There are three keys to a successful IPM program: a written policy, a knowledgeable coordinator and effective communications. The first key is a written policy. IPM is doomed to failure without broad understanding and commitment by all stakeholders, including faculty, staff, board members and parents. A written policy helps to gain consensus and provides continuity.

Once a policy is in place, someone needs to coordinate the overall program. Whether the entire program is implemented internally or the majority of the services are contracted out, it is critical to have a knowledgeable person on staff. The type of expertise varies according to the level of internal implementation.

Gwinnett County's Taylor is an entomologist by training. With the help of one full-time technician and one or two college students during the summer, he provides all pest-control services-except termite pre-treatments in new buildings-for 80 schools.

But the coordinator does not have to be an entomologist to manage an effective program. Hinsdale's Kamuda knew very little about pest control when she decided to adopt IPM. She has developed a simple checklist to determine the source of the problem. If pesticide application is required, she enlists the services of a state-certified pest-control operator.

Finally, effective communication is critical to the ongoing success and commitment to IPM.

"Fruit-fly infestations are usually the result of fruit left in employee desks or cabinets. A simple announcement by the principal asking teachers to remove the fruit usually solves the problem," says Gwinnett County's Taylor.

Dave Shangle, a pest-control specialist in suburban Chicago, says, "IPM is simply managing pests by managing their environment." An advocate of IPM for more than 20 years, Shangle adds that integration means using a variety of tools, including pesticides.

"Sometimes the safest and most effective tool is a pesticide," he says. "But with IPM, pesticide use is always a well-reasoned decision. We don't automatically grab a spray can."

There are three simple steps to an effective IPM program:

1. Identify and monitor pests. IPM begins by identifying the pests in and around school property, and monitoring the level of infestation. Accurate pest identification is critical. Each pest has a life cycle and certain environmental needs. Proper identification and monitoring makes it easy to select the most appropriate, cost-effective control available.

2. Determine the action threshold. The action threshold is the level of pest infestation and activity that can be tolerated. The threshold for each pest is determined by the severity of the injury caused by the pest, site characteristics, health concerns related to the pest and site-user needs.

3. Take action to prevent or control the pest. IPM encourages using the tool or combination of tools that will create the safest and most-effective control program. Some of the most commonly used tools include sanitation; structural repair and maintenance; watering and mowing practices; pest-resistant plant varieties; and judicious use of pesticides.

The University of Florida, Gainesville, has created an IPM website at www.iffas.ufl.edu. The school administrator section explains IPM, outlines an implementation plan and provides technical pest-control information, as well as presentations about IPM and various pests. The site also has an IPM listserve and links to other sites, including government agencies, university entomology departments, pest-identification and control resources, and pest-control associations.

For more pest-related information, call the National Pest Control Association at (800)678-6722 or visit its website at www.pestworld.org. Other sources include the local cooperative extension service, and state departments of agriculture, education and public health.

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