Balancing Risks of Pesticides on School Fields

This time of year, school playing fields in Connecticut are teeming with kids but caring for them is no simple task because state law discriminates how fields can be treated.

Right now, pesticides are banned at K-through-8 schools and pre-school facilities, but State Senator Edward Meyer, of Guilford, is championing a measure that would extend the ban to Connecticut high schools.

"Several years ago, the science became clear that pesticides were extremely toxic, particularly to younger people," the longtime Democratic lawmaker said.

Recently, Professor Chensheng Lu, of the Harvard School of Public Health, came to the State Capitol and presented what Senator Meyer calls "compelling evidence" regarding the dangers of pesticides and children.

Nancy Alderman, president of the non-profit Environment And Human Health, Inc., based in North Haven, ( has been a driving force behind the extended ban. 

"All pesticides, all of them, are toxic, otherwise they wouldn't work, and they are all regulated," Alderman said.

Although a handful of Connecticut school districts, including Cheshire and Branford, have gone "pesticide-free," most use an integrated pest management plan to maintain their green spaces. 

"We try to put the least amount of chemicals on the fields as we can," said Walt Parkes, who is in charge of maintaining the school fields in East Haddam.

The fields at Hale Ray High School are nearly pristine, but up the road at Nathan Hale Ray Middle School, the view is a far different. Ruts, bare patches and uneven surfaces are the norm. 

Middle School vice principal Roy Parker has seen the field conditions deteriorate over the past four years.

"The kids deserve better. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the fields and it’s kind of wasted money," Parker said.

The town has laid out thousands of dollars more over-seeding the fields.  Parker said it's not just an issue of aesthetics; it's about exposing kids to serious risk of injury.

"Our maintenance crew has done everything possible within the scope of the law to make the fields playable and, if you look here, the question: 'Is it safe?’ I personally don't think it's particularly safe, especially if you're playing shortstop or third base, and you got a hard ground ball coming at you," Parker said.

Professor Jason Henderson, a turf management specialist in the UConn School of Agriculture, said maintaining fields without pesticides is a huge challenge and requires people to change their expectations about what's considered a "nice field."

"If you have children involved in youth sports, you've likely seen a change in quality since the law went into effect," Henderson said.

His latest research delves into best management practices for pesticide-free fields, and at this point, the products accepted under the ban are largely untested.

"The tools on the organic side are drastically different than the tools on the synthetic side, simply because of efficacy," Henderson said.

In addition, the cost difference in substantial.

According to Henderson's estimates, controlling crabgrass costs about $60 per acre with a traditional product. In contrast, the most common organic solution (corn gluten meal) costs $700 per acre. For grub control, Henderson says treating fields with the chemical Acelepryn costs about $100 per acre. The organic method using pathogenic nematodes runs at least $350 per acre. 

"You're talking two to three times the cost, and what's likely to happen is that towns with greater resources may do better than those with less resources," Henderson said.

Those who support extending the ban said school maintenance departments are simply resistant to change.

"Many of them just don't want to do it. They love their pesticides ... so we've had some real push back on these restrictions from groundskeepers," Sen. Meyer said.

Alderman takes issue with the assertion that organic field maintenance costs more than the traditional method.

"The first year or two, it is perhaps more money. But it is not, in the long term, more money. The argument really is the work load. Is that easier? Yes, I'll admit it's easier. Is it good for our children? No," she said.

Roy Parker believes it's just trading one risk for another.

He said experts from UConn and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have toured the East Haddam fields and told him there's little that can be done to improve them in light of the pesticide ban. Parker doesn't want to see the same thing happen to the fields at the high school.

"Where can we meet in the middle, where the environmental people who have good thoughts will be satisfied and for the people who work and play on the fields so they are satisfied as well," Parker said.

The bill to extend the pesticide ban to high schools is currently on the calendar for a vote in the Connecticut Senate.

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