Away with all pests—without pesticides

By Dorothy Wigmore

Creepy crawlies. Rodents. Ticks. Bees and wasps. 

The pandemic has made us forget many other health and safety hazards and introduced new ones. One of these hazards is unwanted or harmful insects or animals—pests—that may have had free rein in unoccupied schools or now have new targets with food in classrooms or outside spaces needing attention.

New Jersey has a specific law and regulations about how schools must deal with pests. The 2002 School Integrated Pest Management Act and related regulations say that pests and pesticides don’t have to go together. One of three such laws in the country, they’re based on requirements from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Schools can be fined for violations.

What’s IPM?

“The process of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system is you do everything possible before you go to the spray,” says Art Pierfy, director of Facilities Management and Safety Management for the Rockaway Township Board of Education. “That’s your last line of defense. You’ve exhausted everything else.”

Pesticides are designed to kill things; most can harm people too. EPA reviews the health and environmental effects of a product’s “active ingredient.” The other “inert” ingredients (e.g., silica, solvents) often are toxic too but their hazards don’t count in the assessment. 

Only licensed applicators—trained in how to use pesticide products, the protective gear required, reentry times, etc.—can use pesticides in or around New Jersey schools. Usually, this means an outside “exterminator.”

“It used to be if a teacher, or parent or anybody saw ants, they would go up to get the Raid and start spraying. Well, that’s not how you do it,” Pierfy explains. 

Schools now need IPM co-ordinators. Pierfy provides 10 training sessions during the school year for them and others. He encourages nurses and other staff to attend; principals should, but rarely do. 

Tom Rumaker knows the process. A custodian, maintenance and food-service person in the five-building Pitman School District, he’s had to deal with hornets nests outside, and ants, bats, flies, unknown “bugs” in classrooms “and mice, once in a blue moon.”

In one situation, a teacher reported ants in a computer classroom. When Rumaker showed the outside specialist how ants “were walking across the counter, on the keyboards … the guy said, ‘Tell the teacher to stop allowing the kids to have candy and juice in the classroom.’ You could see the wrappers the kids were throwing behind the computers.” When flies were the problem another time, maintenance staff repaired screens and filled gaps in window frames.

In another case, unidentified bugs came out of baseboards when temperatures increased. This was reported to the plant manager and recorded in a log that the exterminator checks on monthly visits. Although the pesticide specialist used nontoxic glue strips in the cracks, the bugs returned in different spots.

“The day custodian got tired of sucking them up with the vacuum cleaner, so he put black duct tape along the bottom of the molding and we haven’t seen them since,” Rumaker says. 

Like other health and safety hazards, this kind of prevention is key. As Pierfy says, “What’s causing them to come there? They’re not coming for the math class.” Things like removing food scraps, fixing window screens and power washing dumpsters prevent pest intrusions.

How’s IPM supposed to work?

The basics of IPM include:

  • Schools must have an IPM policy and plan, implemented by an IPM coordinator.
  • The coordinator, others involved with implementation (e.g., principals, custodians) and pesticide applicators hired by the school or district, must receive training. 
  • Parents, guardians and everyone in the school must be educated about possible pest problems and how IPM deals with them. 
  • There are rules about using pesticides—low impact ones are preferred, notices must be given, and information posted (e.g., little flags outside), students usually can’t be in the school, reentry times are seven hours or whatever the label says for all but low impact pesticides, and more
  • Principals must notify parents and guardians about planned pesticide use and provide the district board with annual reports about what pests were present, what was done about them, pesticides used, and recommended improvements.
  • Information about the plan, policy and practices must be provided to students, staff and parents/guardians.

The IPM coordinator can’t be everywhere. “We need people who are actually in those rooms to identify what’s there,” Pierfy adds. 

Be wary about what’s called IPM

The Beyond Pesticides group warns that IPM has many meanings these days. Its ecological pest management (EPM) approach has six program essentials: prevention, identification, monitoring, record-keeping, action levels, tactics criteria and evaluation—similar to New Jersey’s rules.

Action levels and tactics criteria are important. Action levels set a cut-off for action related to human health, economic or aesthetic reasons. For example, school cafeterias need to be more pest-free than equipment rooms and frequently used athletic fields likely need more intense land management than other areas, while grubs in them only need attention if there are 10 or more per square foot. 

What should health and safety committees do?

  • The local health and safety committee plays an important role in pest management. Their tasks include:
  • Meet the IPM co-ordinator regularly.
  • Keep tabs on all required documents, including records and reports, and take action accordingly.
  • Send someone to IPM training and share that information with local association members and others.
  • Include pest-related hazards in inspections/walk-throughs.
  • Insist on prevention and least-toxic approaches (e.g., check the hazards of specific products on EPA’s “least toxic” list—some cause asthma).
  • Work with staff, parents and students when pests seem to be a problem.