Local Districts Move to Ban Chemical Pesticides and Herbicides from Schools 

Following the lead of an innovative and successful program on the Cal campus, local schools are adopting integrated pest management methods

Art Slater likes to tell the story of the million-dollar rat that once visited UC Berkeley. It was just an ordinary rat, a common pest at a large institution. But the rodent found its way into a transformer on the campus and touched just the wrong surface at just the wrong time, shorting out circuits and causing a million-dollar mess.

Slater tells this story because it illustrates the importance of his job. For 28 years, Slater was UC Berkeley's bug man. Before he arrived at Berkeley, the university's way of dealing with bugs and night crawlers was to spray--early and often. But Slater, armed with nothing more than a few baits and household implements, reduced both spraying and the bug population to nearly nothing, making Berkeley an early model of what is now known as Integrated Pest Management. He proved that deadly chemicals are not necessary for effective results. Thirty years later, the idea is catching on--especially at school districts, as parents learn more about the disruptive and damaging possibilities of the deadly elixirs traditionally used to kill pests.

Slater was a graduate student in entomology at Berkeley in 1973 when his grant money began to wear thin and he started to look for a job. One in particular caught his eye: a position in the university's own environmental health and safety department in charge of pest control. He applied and got the job in exactly one week. But the job had changed a little from its previous incarnation. In the past, pest control meant showing up every other week and dousing a building with whatever chemical proved effective for two weeks--the most common ones were diazon and deodorized kerosene. But pesticides had caught the attention of a campus committee on pest management, made up of faculty and employees, who worried that pesticides could skew research results. Slater's task was to modernize the pest-control program.

He says that the committee was right to be worried about the spraying program. "You can't spray one spot and the spray stays there," he says. "The spray moves all over creation." For example, Slater points to a researcher in North Carolina who experimented with spray movement. He sprayed the basement of a four-story house, then followed the chemicals as they drifted upward, saturating the house until they reached the attic. But if Slater couldn't spray, how could he control the legions of cockroaches, ants, beetles, rats, and pigeons which, along with 32,000 students and thousands more faculty and employees, call the university home?

The solution, Slater says, was as simple as boric acid and soap. He set baits for the cockroaches, cleaned up ant trails with soap, and netted the eaves of buildings for pigeons. And it worked. By 1979, Slater says, "we had reduced our pesticide usage by 94 percent in our 4,300 housing units, and by 99 percent in the research areas on campus."

It got trickier as time went on. When a particularly virulent breed of cockroach resistant to boric acid baits took up residence in the buildings--the brownbanded cockroach, to be exact--Slater had to search for another nonspray solution. He hit upon one of the brownbanded cockroach's natural predators--a tiny parasitic wasp that feeds on the pest's eggs. He released the wasps directly into the research buildings--"campus buildings that had millions of dollars of research in them," he recalls. And the wasps themselves died off when they became too adept at wiping out the cockroach population. That kind of solution shocked academic onlookers. "Here we were, not using sprays at all and getting tremendous results while these other articles were coming out saying that you had to use sprays, or that you couldn't do [Integrated Pest Management] inside buildings," Slater says. "If you get too far ahead of the future, you are on the lunatic fringe. Well," he adds with a chuckle, "we were definitely beyond the lunatic fringe."

Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, is not a complete ban on pesticides. Rather, it's a system that calls for a series of increasing responses to a pest, always starting with the least toxic possibility. "A lot of IPM is like preventive medicine," Slater explains. "You eat right so you don't get problems from eating wrong later." IPM aims to prevent the pest problem in the first place, rather than spraying the results later. This means thinking like the bug--where are the warm and cozy nooks in the building? What windows leave wide-open entryways for bugs? "You can look at ant problems as a result of what kinds of plants are in your yard," Slater says. "If I want to study ants, I will plant pine trees around the school and have as many ants as I want to study. But if I don't want ants, I won't plant pine and citrus, I'll select plants that aren't favorable to the development of ant problems." There are even architectural design elements that can make homes more pest resistant; while Slater was at Berkeley he taught a three-hour course to prospective architects on design features and pest problems. "If you're an architect, you're designing a habitat that can support or cannot support pests," Slater explains. "You're literally controlling what's going to happen." Some cities, like Honolulu and Sydney, even require houses to be built on four inches of sand, which discourages termites from taking up residence in structures.

Slater has helped to make an IPM model out of the Berkeley campus, and has proven that IPM can lead to increased cost efficiency as well. "In 1974, there was a person whose job was cockroach control in the life sciences building," he says. "Her full-time, forty-hour-a-week job was cockroach control in one building. Last year she was in charge of all pest control in the 213 central campus buildings. And she was only getting two to three cockroach complaints a month."


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