Congress Committee Toxic to School Pesticide Bill

Although politicians are jostling to take credit for the new education bill, there's one deleted part that belongs in their hall of shame. On Friday Nov. 30, the School Environment Protection Act (SEPA) was killed in a joint House-Senate conference committee. Only one Republican voted for the bill, which would have required public schools to notify parents about the use of bug-killing chemicals. The bill also would have required the states to develop a pest management plan that considers alternatives to toxic sprays in schools.

Senator Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) sponsored the legislation and every Democrat on the committee voted for it, but that wasn't enough when the majority of Republican House members used their weight to squash the bill.

This issue might be news to most readers, since the story received little media coverage. The Associated Press and MSNBC did run articles on the vote but many newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, did not. But they did print thousands of words that weekend on the death of former Beatle George Harrison.

I love the Beatles and own all their albums, but hey editors! Don't you think the death of a bill protecting our children from toxic chemicals is just as newsworthy as the death of a famous musician?

Advocates of the School Environment Protection Act cited a report by The National Academy of Sciences concluding that children are among the least protected population segment against pesticides and, given their smaller size and still-developing organs, are at higher risk than adults to pesticide exposure. A National Cancer Institute study indicates that use of household and garden pesticides can increase the risk of childhood leukemia as much as seven-fold. And a National Institutes of Health study showed that between 1973 and 1991 the overall incidence of childhood cancer rose 10 percent and the incidence of children's soft-tissue and brain cancer spread by 25 percent.

So how could anyone oppose a bill that would make schools notify parents when pesticides will be used and prohibit use of certain pesticides in any area that will be used within 24 hours? Money.

Although SEPA was supported by the National Parent-Teacher Association, the National Education Association and and the American Federation of Teachers, committee Republicans were still overcome by the chemical industry's spending spray.

The Republicans claim the bill was costly and poorly crafted. That's odd, since a compromise was worked out last summer that even lobbyists for major manufacturers of pesticides agreed to in a letter to Senate leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott. But since then, the pesticide industry reneged on the agreement and lobbied in stealth against the bill, said Jay Feldman, Executive Director of the non-profit grassroots group Beyond Pesticides, which supported SEPA.

"This is something which should have had no controversy," said Sen. Torricelli. "There are children playing on football fields and students eating in cafeterias that were sprayed with toxic materials immediately before they entered the room." He said there was no explanation for the defeat of the provision "except the influence of the chemical industry itself."

Although the public has been wary of pesticides for at least the four decades since publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," it's clear that pesticide producers still poison politics and prevent us from protecting our children.

Frank Lingo is a freelance writer based in Lawrence, Kansas. He has been a frequent contributor to The Kansas City Star and the website TomPaine.com. He can be reached at franklingo@earthlink.net.

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