Girl Planting seeds

Pesticides, Playgrounds & Your Kids

kids_park_shutterstock_197363645_croppedBy Deirdre Imus, 8-25-2016
As parents, we rely on schools to provide more than just an education: we count on schools and the people who work in them to keep our kids safe. Whether by preventing them from darting into the street or by breaking up a scuffle between students, teachers and administrators bear responsibility for the well-being of their students, if only for a handful of hours on school days.

But the job of protecting students from harm should extend beyond the classroom walls. Kids carry with them forever many of the lessons learned and friendships formed at school. Unfortunately, they also take other, less desirable things, and often without even knowing it: pesticide residue from a soccer field’s gorgeously green grass, or chemicals used to grow the fruits and vegetables consumed at lunch.

While none of us should inhale or ingest harmful substances in our midst, the potential negative health consequences of doing so are particularly potent in kids. Studies have linked chemical exposures in childhood to autism, cancer, learning disabilities, and asthma, to name just a few chronic conditions.  There’s enough to worry about as your child boards the bus to school each morning. If school districts can be proactive about some of the less obvious – but no less hazardous – chemical exposures in their students’ midst, it might make just that much easier for parents to sleep at night.

Like with a house, curb appeal of a school is important. It should look alluring from the outside so that kids show up each day motivated to learn, eager to run through the doors. But such beauty can come at a price, and sometimes that price is our children’s health. Pesticide use is common on school grounds, to keep fields, tracks, playgrounds, and other areas sanitary and visually attractive.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended schools practice integrated pest management (IPM) rather than pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other chemicals known to harm human health.  IPM uses common sense strategies to reduce sources of food, water and shelter for pests and, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is usually a less costly option for effective pest management in a school community.

As far as I’m concerned, IPM can’t be applied fast enough. A 2014 study found that children whose mothers are exposed to agricultural pesticides during pregnancy might be at an increased risk for autism spectrum disorders. In the study, pesticide-treated areas were not just limited to farms, but also included parks, golf courses, and roadsides. All kids use their hands to explore their world (and often to eat!), so make sure to wash your children’s hands if you think they’ve been in an area even remotely close to where pesticides are used.

Schools must also carefully select the produce served at meals. Conventionally grown food is rife with pesticides, which may block nutrient absorption or permanently alter the way an individual’s biological system operates, according to the EPA. What’s more, children’s bodies are less efficient at removing pesticides if the excretory system is not fully developed.

Simply put, pesticides are bad for all of us. They are really bad for kids.

The Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) notes that kids drink 2.5 times more water and eat 3-4 times more food than adults do. There has been a strong push from the federal government to make school lunches healthier by including more fruits and vegetables. But if these foods are not grown on organic farms, it may be doing more harm than good.

If you choose to serve pesticide-free or organic produce at home, you shouldn’t have to worry that your children’s diet is comparatively sub-par in the cafeteria. Urge your school district to link with a pesticide-free farm-to-school program, which benefits bodily health and can also give your local economy a boost. The National Farm to School Network ( is a good place to start: it is an information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and preschools.

The bad news is pesticides are ubiquitous. The good news is that the health dangers these chemicals pose are only becoming more obvious, and as a result, formerly “alternative” practices like organic farming and IPM are becoming less trendy and more mainstream.


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