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Banning Pesticides from School Grounds

From: NRDC Smarter Cities
September 9, 2010
By Michelle Cordray

New York and Connecticut families with school-age children can breathe a little easier. Earlier this year, Governor David Paterson signed into law the “Child Safe Playing Fields Act,” banning the use of pesticides on fields and playgrounds at all public and private schools in the state. In July, a similar law went into effect in Connecticut. Use of chemical pesticides is common at schools throughout the country, despite evidence that the chemicals are linked to a host of health problems, including asthma, cancer and learning disabilities such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

For years, the New York State Senate and Assembly failed to pass different versions of a pesticide bill. “To be honest, we never really thought the law would pass,” says Doug Wood, Associate Director of Grassroots Environmental Education, a non-profit organization in Port Washington, New York dedicated to educating the public about the impact of toxic chemicals on human health. But the seemingly Sisyphean task of enacting legislation has finally come to pass.

Bill Cooke, an energetic environmental lobbyist with a gift for candor, is the Director of Government Relations at Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE) and has collaborated with Grassroots Environmental Education for years on the push for legislation. “We’re trying to get the truth out about pesticides,” says Cooke. “To increase our children’s risk for getting cancer because we don’t like dandelions? That’s outrageous. The cost is borne by our children and our environment and the benefits go to Dow, Scotts, and Monsanto.”

In drumming up momentum for the bill, CCE went door-to-door, distributing educational fliers developed by Grassroots to more than 500,000 people. “We talk to people,” says Cooke of CCE’s methods. “We get them to write letters, not sign postcards, not send emails…letters.” CCE generated more than 10,000 letters in support of a pesticides bill.

Meanwhile, Grassroots took parallel steps to bolster support for the legislation, providing every legislator a copy of their short video called “Playing it Safe” on pesticide use at schools; they also prepared and distributed a white paper that demonstrated organic maintenance of school fields costs less than chemically based maintenance over a five-year period.

And last, says Doug Wood, “we promised the members of the Senate and Assembly that if they passed the bill and the Governor signed it, we could train one turf manager from every school district in the state at no charge.” Now that the Senate and Assembly have passed the bill, Grassroots will run ten training programs on organic methods for maintaining school playgrounds and fields throughout New York. Starting this September, Grassroots will conduct training in Connecticut as well.

Grassroots’ white paper and their commitment to provide training “were absolutely critical” in getting the legislation passed, says Cooke. In addition, two Long Island legislators -- Assembly Member Steve Englebright and Senate Member Brian Foley -- sponsored the bill and really worked to see it passed. “[Englebright and Foley] recognized it was going to be an uphill battle,” explains Cooke, “and they fought hard.”

The success of New York’s legislation may have potential nationwide impact. “We’ve had calls from other states asking, ‘How did you do it?’” says Cooke. To help replicate their success, Grassroots is producing a DVD of their training program that can be used around the country along with a 3-inch binder of printed support material. “You can be trained just as well in Boise, Idaho,” says Cooke, “by watching the videos and going through the paperwork.”

Cooke expresses some caution however. Because of the bill’s potential impact, the chemical industry is likely to challenge it, he says, adding, “I think it’s going to take five years to protect this victory. When an environmentalist wins, it’s temporary.”

The passage of these acts in both the New York and Connecticut Senates is welcome news in a year when the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s proposed 2011 budget calls for the slashing of funds for regional Integrated Pest Management (IPM) centers. These centers play a valuable role in helping citizens reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals by providing information on pest management strategies that minimize risks to people and the environment.

For now, however, New York and Connecticut’s victories in protecting children from pesticide exposure on school grounds are cause for celebration. Doug Wood stresses that the importance of the new laws cannot be understated. “It recognizes the unique vulnerability of children to chemical exposures,” says Wood. “It also raises public consciousness on an issue that is often buried by a billion-dollar advertising campaign that portrays the use of pesticides as a responsible homeowner activity. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The Connecticut and New York legislative battles also provide a lesson in collaboration and persistence.

“Nobody can do this alone,” emphasizes Cooke. Then, with a reflective pause, he adds, “Honestly, I was shocked it happened. I’ve waited 17 years for this.”