Five hundred to six hundred cases of pesticide exposures occur at U.S. schools each year, but the students and teachers at Cass Technical High School are in the clear. At this high school in downtown Detroit, the kids run their own schoolwide pest control science project using a safe integrated pest management program—also known as IPM.
An eight-story brick and granite building erected in 1917, Cass Tech, whose student body is 92 percent African American, is surrounded by highways, parking lots, boarded-up buildings, and trash-strewn vacant lots. The building was so infested with rodents and roaches that, as one teacher says of the pest control program, “If it can work here, it can work anywhere.”
“I got tired of looking at roaches running across my paper while I’m taking a test,” jokes Rachel Edwards, an eighteen-year-old senior who has been on the student IPM team since she was a freshman. When talk turns to bugs and rodents, this teenage girl doesn’t get squeamish. Instead, she presents a matter-of-fact lesson on the life cycle of roaches and strategies to control their populations. “We have three different species of roaches,” she explains. “I’ve learned their different behaviors, where they hide, what they eat, and when they reproduce.”
The roach patrol’s arsenal includes sticky traps baited with roach attractants, bait stations with nematodes and tiny wasps that prey on the roaches, and insect-sterilizing hormones. The student-led IPM barrage has been a success. “We saw a significant decline in the roach population in the first year,” Edwards says.
Tom Green, director of the IPM Institute, says this safer method of pest control involves “replacing chemical power with brain power.” IPM does not involve routine application of pesticides—many of which are highly toxic to humans. Instead, it calls for careful monitoring to determine whether pest control treatments are needed. When treatments are made, IPM practitioners choose from a wide array of biological, mechanical, educational, and chemical techniques. Toxic chemicals are used only as a last resort.
In a scenario most science teachers only dream about, Edwards and her fellow students have taken the message of IPM out into the streets. Says the teenager, “Every time I go to the beauty parlor with my mom, people ask me what to do about roaches. I explain to them that they should clean up, caulk around the plumbing, and use chemicals that are less toxic to humans.