Perspectives Online

No Pests in This School, Please. Keeping schools pest-free these days means using fewer pesticides — and more common sense. By Anton Zuiker

Dr. Godfrey Nalyanya and Buddy McCarty of Wake County Public Schools look for any potential problem areas at a Raleigh middle school. (Photo by Daniel Kim)
Demonstrating how basic preventive measures can help solve pest problems without reliance on pesticides, Nalyanya and Buddy McCarty of Wake County Public Schools look for any potential problem areas at a Raleigh middle school.
(Photo by Daniel Kim)
School environmental safety officer Clark Wyatt took the call from a teacher in the Buncombe County Schools, asking him to come take care of an ant problem in a classroom. When he walked in, the first thing he noticed was a lollipop stuck to the floor, covered with the hungry ants.

“Remove their food and place to stay, and you’re not going to have pests hanging around,” Wyatt told the teacher after cleaning up the mess.

It’s Wyatt’s job to keep the school buildings pest-free. Since 1998, that message of classroom cleanliness has helped the school system save thousands of dollars by reducing the amount of pesticide for controlling ants, cockroaches and mice. Such a common-sense approach is called integrated pest management (IPM), and school systems across the state are showing increased interest in adopting the practice.

Dr. Godfrey Nalyanya is leading efforts to encourage more schools to use integrated pest management. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)
Dr. Godfrey Nalyanya (above) is leading efforts to encourage more schools to use integrated pest management.
(Photo by Becky Kirkland)
Integrated pest management is a systematic approach to controlling pests. Instead of routine spraying, IPM seeks to find the right combination of preventive pest control measures that is most appropriate to the situation. In schools, this includes reminding teachers and students not to leave food in their desks, encouraging kitchen staff to dispose of all trash correctly and having maintenance workers plug up holes in windows and walls where pests can enter. School workers like Wyatt also continuously monitor school buildings to anticipate problem areas.

Earlier this year, Wyatt shared his IPM experience with environmental safety officers in other school districts in a series of workshops organized by Dr. Godfrey Nalyanya, Extension asssociate for urban IPM in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Crop Science.

Integrated pest management is especially pertinent for schools, says Nalyanya, because active children easily pick up pesticide residue from floors and the lower parts of walls. Besides, “some pest control companies just spray in schools instead of getting to the bottom of their pest problems,” he says.

Nalyanya is leading an awareness and education effort to encourage more schools to use IPM. Currently, nine school districts in North Carolina use this approach voluntarily; a decade ago, says Nalyanya, legislation to mandate IPM for schools was unsuccessful. (IPM is used in schools in 18 states).

“The bottom line of IPM is that we’re trying to help public schools solve pest problems without relying on pesticides. That way, we can avoid exposing students and school employees to pesticides,” says Nalyanya. The school IPM project stems from N.C. State’s Center for Integrated Pest Management, a leader in the effort to spread IPM to many levels of society, from farms and fields to urban areas and public buildings.

More attention to school safety, and fewer chemicals, pleases teachers, students and parents, says William Bailey, who recently retired from the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. As the pesticide technician for the school system, Bailey looked after 15 buildings. He used sticky pads to trap pests and pesticide gels for crevices instead of the residue-prone sprays and fogs, and the community complimented him for that. “They see it as safer and more effective,” he says.

Like Wyatt, Bailey stresses that the success of IPM relies on communicating the importance of cleanliness. Whenever he enters a classroom, he first determines what the pests are after. “You don’t treat before you know the source,” he says.

A 2003 survey by the Raleigh-based Agricultural Resources Center and Pesticide Education Project of a little more than half of the state’s school districts found that 43 percent of school districts regularly applied pesticides in classrooms. Only three school districts reported that they notify parents about pesticide spraying.

“Someone still needs to prove to me why we need to be using more chemicals to deal with pests,” says Ben Matthews, director of school support for the North Carolina Department of Education. Matthews oversees the department’s efforts to improve school safety in the state, from the way buildings are designed to the way pests are kept out of classrooms. He says more can be done to protect air quality around public schools.

“Anything we can do to reduce chemical proliferation is good for the state,” says Matthews. He was a principal for schools in Moore and Duplin counties, and the spraying affected him, too. “I used to have severe breathing problems after the spraying,” he says.

Parents often become involved in the IPM effort when they learn how pesticides can exacerbate children’s asthma.

Melanie Carroll’s son was in first grade when, researching alternative therapies for her own health problems, she started to learn about how pesticides enter the food supply. She picked up a copy of “Clean Schools, Safe Kids,” a report from the Agricultural Resources Center, and that prompted her to bug the Guilford County Schools about its pest management policies. In July, she was still waiting for a response, but she was hopeful.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she says. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Nalyanya says the same thing. Pesticides are a quick fix, he says. But applying a little common sense to the fight against pests is, in the end, less expensive, safer and more effective.