All the ickiest creatures you can think of are on the run these days in the Salt Lake City School District, and not because the district is flooding the hallways with scary-sounding pesticides. In fact, the district is doing just the opposite.
It has reduced pesticide use by approximately 90 percent and more than halved the number of pest complaints at three pilot schools by participating in a program that makes children's health the priority. Chemicals are sprayed less often, and mice, bats and other critters are kept at bay using a sensible preventive approach.
"If we could bottle Salt Lake's commitment to children and their competence in doing this, we could help kids all over the United States," said Marc Lame, an entomologist from Indiana University who worked on the project.
Salt Lake is the only district in Utah using the approach and is the first in the Rocky Mountains region to win recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency. The program, known as Integrated Pest Management, launched districtwide this fall. It is modeled after one started in a school district in Indiana.
Pests and pesticides can damage children's health. The No. 1 asthma trigger for schoolchildren in inner cities is the cockroach, Lame said. As the insects' shells decompose, a protein gets in the air and triggers the disease. Mice dander and decomposing feces can do the same.
Spraying pesticides has its own share of problems. Most pesticides are neurotoxins, Lame said, which have been associated with developmental problems in children.
"Pesticides . . . sit there and we have people, kids and students that come in contact with that," said Ricardo Zubiate, the district's IPM coordinator.
So instead of being a regular thing, spraying of chemicals to kill pests is done on an as-needed basis now in Salt Lake.
The district is educating staff about how to discourage insects and animals from turning schools into hotels. That is done by keeping food in sealed containers and removing clutter and cardboard that might make a good breeding ground. The district has worked to seal gaps in buildings that could make inviting doorways for creative critters. Custodians are expected to keep a pest ''log,'' a record of whatever pests they see evidence of.
At West High, the district is working to seal the building so bats can't get in. A vole problem was eliminated at Northwest Middle School by taking better care of turf around playgrounds. Some schools' visiting mice have gone away after food was made inaccessible.
''If we change our behavior, it results in attracting fewer pests,'' said Gregg Smith, the director of facility services for the Salt Lake district.
Not only is the program keeping kids and schools healthier, it is likely to save the district dollars in the long run, officials say. The district's efforts may be used as a model for others in Utah and the Rocky Mountain region.
"It is really impressive in our world of children's environmental health protection that Salt Lake got it," Lame said.
* JULIA LYON can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 801-257-8748.