Spring is a long way off, but environmental activists have already begun to generate fear in order to advance bans and regulations related to pesticide use on school playgrounds and fields—and inside schools as well. Such regulations at the state and local level already hinder the ability of schools and pest control officials to address everything from rats to poison ivy.

Such policies ignore the fact that when these products are used carefully according to label directions, the public health benefits outweigh the risks. And there is plenty evidence that, despite claims to the contrary, pesticides are used in a relatively safe manner in and around schools. 

Children’s exposure to these chemicals is short-term and low-level and thus unlikely to have any long-term or cancerous effects. In addition, federal law requires products to be thousands of times safer than levels their risk assessment research finds safe.

Acute poisoning can result from high-level exposures, but this has not been a significant problem in schools. Data compiled by the Association of Poison Control Centers indicate few problems. An association’s report on the topic covering 2003–before many of the regulations limiting use had taken effect–includes a sample of about 2.4 million reports from 60 poison centers around the nation and covers the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

According to this report, pesticide poisoning problems are not school-based problems: 92 percent of all poisonings occur in the home, and only 1.5 percent of all poisonings occur at school (it is unclear how many of these poisonings are related to pesticides and what the degree of severity is). Of the 41 pesticide-related deaths listed, the report finds that none involved school-age children and most involved intentional poisoning. Five accidental deaths occurred outside of schools—two were pre-school-age children and three were adults.

The rest of the nearly 2,600 cases involved temporary reactions to chemicals that left no long-term effects. The vast majority—89 percent of the cases—were categorized as “low severity,” involving such things as skin irritation, dizziness, headaches, or possible emotional stress associated with exposure to chemicals. Given that the study measures four years of incidents among about 50 million school-age children, these data indicate an incredibly impressive safety record, despite the spin to the contrary. In contrast to the relative safety of pesticide use in schools, problems related to pests remain significant.

Consider a few:

According to School Planning and Management, cockroaches “often infest schools” and they can “carry pathogens that can cause pneumonia, diarrhea, and food poisoning. Their droppings can inflame allergic or asthmatic conditions, especially in young children.” Researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that 36 percent of children in a sample of 476 suffered from cockroach-related allergies.

Fire ants are another problem on school grounds. Texas’s agricultural extension service notes, “Red imported fire ants can be a serious problem for teachers and children cultivating schoolyard gardens in Texas.” In one case, a fire ant infestation at a South Carolina high school shut down a football game because of the serious risks these pests present. 

Health problems also arise from poison ivy, disease-carrying mosquitoes breeding on or near school grounds, dust mites, food-borne illness, molds, bee stings, and other sources—all of which can be reduced with the use of pesticides and disinfectants. Even the common fly can be a problem. According to the article in Planning and School Management, “because of their natural attraction to decaying material, flies are among the filthiest insects around, carrying more than 100 known pathogens. They slough off bacteria every time they land on a desk or a cafeteria plate, so prevention is a serious health issue.”

Rather than take away tools and issue regulations that limit swift action to fight these pests, schools should focus on using these technologies correctly and responsibly—a strategy that is both achievable and safer for kids.