Pesticides Intended for Non-Human Pests

A recently published study by the American Medical Association has pointed out serious concerns about the poisoning of schoolchildren from local pesticides (5). Some people are quick to point out that, of the incidences reported, most of the cases were mild. But many of these chemicals created serious illnesses for some children and employees of the schools. This could lead to the suffering of individuals and increased national health costs. Much of the blame for the continued poisoning has been blamed on the lack of regulation, primarily because it is believed to be hard to regulate (5).

The national health is of concern to everyone, not just the individuals, and it is a problem we all must deal with. If our children and those who teach them are being poisoned, it must be addressed. If the cause of these poisonings can somehow be reduced or eliminated, then it must be handled quickly and appropriately. With the emphasis on health and social action, this issue seems highly representative of the social conflict between the individual suffering and the capitalistic nature of our society.

The specific social problem here is the social concerns surrounding the conflict of health and commerce, and the values we place on each. Pesticides that are used on food that is primarily served in American schools is now being linked to serious cases of illness in children and full-time employees of their schools (5). This is a potentially serious health hazard to many and already be a serious one for those who have been and will be poisoned. Considering this is a nation-wide problem, in that health costs could rise for all Americans, it extends the responsibility beyond just local farmers and school employees. These chemicals may make our food a higher quality and our buildings free of insects, but how does that compare with the potential of poisoning humans?

Of the 2,593 patients studied in the American Medical Association’s journal, most of them had mild illnesses, but some of them were serious and a few were even considered severe (3). The sources of the chemicals were from drifting chemicals used by farmers, common disinfectants used throughout the schools, and pesticides used for killing bugs and weeds around the interior and exterior of the buildings (4). It was likely that nearly one-third of the chemicals came from one source in particular: chemical spray from nearby farmers (1). The number of American children who were made sick by pesticides at their school jumped 39% in four years, from 5.6 out of every million students in 1998 to 7.8 per million in 2002 (2). Approximately two-thirds of these cases were associated with pesticides commonly used in schools (3). Currently there are no specific federal regulations on pesticides and their acceptable levels of exposure to children and adults in school buildings (5).

Clearly, the most obvious concern here is the safety of schoolchildren, especially given the fact that most of the incidences seem to be preventable. Children are particularly susceptible to these kinds of chemicals because of the nature of their biology. The breath more air than adults do proportional to their size, and because they are short they are closer to the areas that have been sprayed by these chemicals (1). There is also the fear that people may attribute their illness with an infection or another biologically-based problem. This is a problem because people will not properly diagnose themselves, and therefore a large number of cases will unreported (2). Another major concern is how to effectively deal with the problem of using pesticides near schools. It is difficult to get real legislation going because it is not properly reported or understood, though that could be changing. But at this time there is no comprehensive national system for determining the levels of chemical exposure and its effects (3).

The official response comes in the form of the article that started this entire public conversation. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Centers for Disease Control both studied hundreds of cases for the article, and it was officially released in the Journal of the American Medical Association (3). This is, so far, the only official word on the issue, but it is a highly influential one. The article is seen as an important move to raising awareness about the problem of pesticides, and as soon as the public starts to react more to it, the politicians will start to comment. There have been no individual responses from politicians, but the statistics in the article are as stern of an official warning as they can be.

Many doctors and related scientists have ample evidence to support the claims provided by the AMA’s article. It has been well-documented that certain commonly-used pesticides cause serious illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease and cancer (3). Therefore, the medical and scientific community has been fairly comfortable criticizing the existence of this problem. They suggest making changes in how schools notify students and parents before using these chemicals (2), using as little pesticide as possible, eliminating problem sources, and establishing buffer zones between schools and fields that require such chemicals (5). Once the public is fully made aware of the issue, there will undoubtedly be more of a response.

The only way this issue could go completely unresolved is if the basic structure of our society was fundamentally altered. In this highly unlikely scenario, disregard for the health and safety of our nation’s children is no longer a concern for most Americans. Clearly this does not seem to be likely, as children are often used as symbolic trophies of our humanity. At this point there should be an interesting debate about the value of farm crops and children, though I doubt the debate will be last very long. After all, what society knowingly and willfully poisons its own children? It could have significant implications for the way schools handle chemicals and students, but mostly in the way of protocol. As long as the issue is resolved relatively soon, I do not anticipate any major sociological changes.

The clinical nature of the statistics and the political nature of it involving children makes this issue hard to put a political spin on, but some media outlets do it, perhaps unconsciously. When citing the number of people in the study who were affected, Forbes simply reported the fact that 7.4 cases out of a million were children and that 27.3 cases out of a million were full-time employees (1). The Washington Post, however, preceded the statistic by saying the “overall rate of pesticide illnesses in schools is small” (4), rather than leaving that decision up to the reader. After all, to the parent of one of those 7.4 in a million, that number is already one case too large. In another part of their article, the Washing Post called people who wanted to reduce the amount of pesticide used around schools “activists” (4). It makes me wonder what steps one must take in order to be considered an activist.

It is very likely that a system will be set up to more accurately determine the level of chemicals in schools, assuming the funding to said schools is not cut. If something is not done, however, it could soon get costly for deep pocket organizations like the companies that produce the chemicals, the schools that the children attend, and sections of the government. This could be an unnecessary financial burden that would be shared among all Americans, which is in addition to the existing burden of allowing such poisoning to continue. There have already been suggestions for how to resolve the issue, mostly in the name of additional steps schools and locals can take. Generally, awareness is the best way to resolve an issue, and the article presented by the AMA is likely to do a great deal in this respect. After all, it is hard to argue against the philosophy that the best way to resolve a problem is through education.

List of Works Consulted
1. Forbes. Kids Exposed to Pesticides on School Grounds.
2. New York Daily News. School poisonings rise.
3. BBC News. School study sparks pesticide row.
4. Washington Post. Pesticides May Be Sickening School Kids.
5. FOX News. Study: Pesticide-Linked Illness Up in Schools.


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