Unwanted Visitors

April 1, 2005
Simple facility upgrades can reduce pests and discourage infestations.

In September 2004, the Boston Herald reported that a new $16.4 million early-childhood-education center in Somerville, Mass., was infested with rodents. Teachers reported mice in classrooms, and the city's mayor became so upset with maintenance at the facility that he had school custodians placed under city jurisdiction.

The incident shows how a pest infestation in an education facility can have a ripple effect that extends to teachers, students, parents, administrators, school board members and even city or state officials. The fines imposed on school systems for pest violations can be costly. And, any publicity about a pest problem could tarnish the school's reputation. But worst of all, an outbreak of pest-related illness among students or staff could create a nightmare scenario.

No place like home

Education institutions are prime hangouts for pests for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Continual foot traffic gives pests ample opportunities to come and go.

  • Certain odors from food-service operations can attract pests. The scent of bagged lunches in lockers also can be a magnet for pests.

  • Frequent deliveries of foodstuffs and school supplies give pests the opportunity to “hitchhike” onto deliveries into a school.

Although pests and the diseases they carry pose a danger to students, overuse or misuse of pesticides also can be harmful. Pesticides present a threat greater to children than adults. Because of their size, children absorb pesticides at a higher concentration. The organ systems in children still are developing and are more vulnerable. Children have a greater tendency to place their hands close to their faces, which could cause pesticides to be ingested.

Parents have reason to be concerned about having their children exposed to pesticides. According to a report presented last year at an American Public Health Association meeting, between 1998 and 2002, 2,096 individuals, including 1,425 children, became ill from exposure to pesticides in U.S. schools.

In 2003, a teacher and 42 students at an Ohio middle school were treated at a hospital after the aroma from a routine pesticide spraying outside the classroom wafted indoors and made everyone nauseated and dizzy.

Controlling pests

One step toward solving any pest-related issue at a school is to make sure it is employing integrated pest management, or IPM. Instead of relying on pesticides alone, IPM calls for the use of all available methodologies to control pests. If pesticides are used, they are applied in careful applications aimed at preventing a particular pest.

Although there is no federal law governing the use of toxic chemicals in schools, many states and individual school districts are making sure students are protected from unnecessary chemicals. About two-thirds of states have adopted pesticide acts and regulations that address the protection of children by focusing specifically on pesticide use in, around or near schools. Educational and awareness groups, such as the IPM Institute of North America, advocate IPM policies and can provide information on how to establish standards for a school.

IPM offers benefits to students and teachers, but setting up and maintaining a pest-control program can seem daunting. A chief benefit of IPM is that it can be incorporated into building plans at any stage in the process. So, whether a school is upgrading existing space or building a new facility, it can make simple modifications to reduce the chances of pest problems before they start:

  • Structural changes

    Several structural elements can be modified to make pest prevention easier. A school's roof is a great place to start. By constructing roof edges at a 45-degree angle or steeper, schools can discourage birds from perching. Bird droppings, like those of rodents and some insects, transmit diseases, and their presence can wreak havoc on any school with an outdoor cafeteria area.

    Landscaping is another area to consider. What many facility planners don't realize is that some landscaping conditions trigger pest problems. Administrators should make sure a school doesn't plant vegetation adjacent to a school's exterior. Many pests, including ants, cockroaches, earwigs and crickets, invade from the outside by way of vegetation that touches a building. For renovations, schools should trim back tree branches, shrubs and plants, and make sure there is ample barrier space between vegetation and buildings.

    Another way to prevent pests from getting too close to a school is to install a gravel strip around the exterior. By running a 30-inch-wide gravel strip along the outside of a building, pests will stay away from the building's structure. Rodents don't like to be out in the open, and crawling insects find gravel difficult to traverse.

  • Positive/negative airflow

    Airflow also can encourage or discourage pest infestations. Education facility planners should consult an HVAC professional about creating a situation in which air flows out when doors open, rather than pulling outside air in. This will make it difficult for flying insects to enter a school.

  • Lighting design

    Lighting design is one of the least expensive and most successful pest deterrents. Some insects are attracted to certain kinds of lighting. When adding exterior lighting in parking lots, one tip is to mount fluorescent lights at least 100 feet away from the school. Flies and other insects are attracted to fluorescent lighting, and this will draw them away from entrances. At entrances that must have lights, install sodium vapor lights, which are less attractive to flying insects.

  • Maintaining a flawless report card

    After all of these steps are included in the design or renovation phase, proper upkeep is important. Frequently, pest problems recur because facilities do not maintain their program.

Another critical factor to the success of an IPM program is communication. Make sure parents, students and employees understand the importance of the IPM program and provide them with ways to help aid in its success. Encourage parents to pack their children's lunches in sealed containers so that pests won't detect the smell; promote good sanitation practices among students and employees; and make sure all trash is disposed of in a timely manner.

Siddiqi, PhD, BCE, is quality assurance director for Orkin, Inc., Atlanta, and often advises school administrators on establishing IPM programs.


  • 2,096

    Number of total individuals (adults and children) who became ill in U.S. schools from exposure to pesticides between 1998 and 2002.

  • 1,425

    Number of children that became ill in U.S. schools from exposure to pesticides between 1998 and 2002.

Source: American Public Health Association

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