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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU working with school districts to implement integrated pest management programs

LOS LUNAS, N.M. Schools, like many other buildings, can suffer pest problems. Insects, such as flies and cockroaches, can spread disease or trigger allergic reactions, while vertebrates like mice may cause structural damage or contaminate food.

Man holding a metal box
Keith Cass, Menaul School maintenance director, looks at a pest trap that the school is using in its integrated pest management program. Tess Grasswitz, NMSU integrated pest management specialist, is working with Cass to develop an IPM program for the school. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

But sometimes the removal of the pest can be as serious as the health risk. Because children are more sensitive to pesticides than adults, people concerned with providing a healthy environment for students often wonder if there is a better way to control pests in schools.

The answer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is for schools to use integrated pest management, a common-sense combination of strategies that offers safe and effective pest management for schools.

Nationally, there is a movement to get all U.S. schools to adopt IPM by 2015. Here in New Mexico, Tess Grasswitz, an IPM specialist at New Mexico State University, is working with school districts to help them develop plans to implement IPM.

"School IPM is based on preventing pests' access to their basic needs: food, water and shelter," Grasswitz said. "Most pests in buildings need all three to survive,"

The largest task in implementing school IPM is the identification of pest-conducive conditions.

"A mouse can enter a building through a hole the size of a dime, and even a small crack can allow ants and cockroaches to find shelter," she said. "So the first step to IPM is to look for access points in the walls or foundations, such as where utilities enter the building, and to check that doorways and windows are properly sealed. Simply installing well-fitted door sweeps can make a huge difference."

By putting more emphasis on pest prevention, IPM helps keep pesticide use to a minimum. Instead of having contractors come in to spray on a regular schedule regardless of whether or not pests are present, chemicals are used only as a last resort - if all else fails.

Grasswitz is collaborating with other members of the Western School IPM Working Group to help promote IPM in schools. Dawn Gouge, a leading national expert from the University of Arizona, has joined Grasswitz twice to conduct IPM workshops and presentations for school maintenance supervisors and staff.

The New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority encourages school personnel to attend these workshops and to include the IPM program in the school districts' state-mandated preventative maintenance plans.

"IPM goes along very well with a school district's maintenance and energy management program," said Les Martinez, NMPSFA maintenance specialist. "A hole where a rodent can access a facility is also where energy can be lost. With an IPM program, you are capturing maximum value on your energy dollar as well as improving efficiencies in energy maintenance."

Although implementing physical remedies in IPM plans can be costly, in the long-term, it can often save money.

Martinez said that with the many issues placing demands on a school district's limited finances, an IPM program is not always a high priority.

"It takes commitment from the school board, superintendent and administration to sustain an IPM program," Martinez said. "When it is only promoted by one or two individuals, if they leave, the program may be dropped. That's why it is important to institutionalize the plan, so that the board expects some type of report on pest management at regular intervals."

Many New Mexico schools are adopting IPM as they become aware of its benefits. Recent converts include one of the oldest education institutions in the state - Menaul School in Albuquerque - and one of the newest - Rio Rancho School District. Menaul School has 19 buildings, including one that is nearly 100 years old. Rio Rancho has 18 school sites with numerous buildings.

Menaul School's administration has been very receptive to the idea of implementing IPM.

"Their response is that we are being proactive rather than reactive to pest problems," said Keith Cass, facilities manager at Menaul School. "We are trying to be more environmentally conscious of how we deal with pests in our buildings."

To provide an additional incentive, Grasswitz has obtained grant funding to help at least one school apply for IPM Star certification. This is a nationally recognized program that rewards school districts achieving excellence in IPM.

"It would be fantastic to have a New Mexico school district get this award," she said. "It's going to take hard work and commitment, but it can be done."

To achieve the honor, a district-wide effort is needed: from administrators actively supporting the program, to maintenance personnel fixing pest access points, and teachers, staff and students all becoming aware of habits that invite pests into the school.

"One of the most common problems is half-eaten food that gets left lying around - things like cake or candy bars that get left in teachers' desks, break rooms or students' lockers," Grasswitz said. "These items attract pests. But the solution is simple: employees and students are asked to place all uneaten snacks in air-tight containers that prevent pests from finding and reaching the food."

"Our teachers are learning quickly not to leave food in their classrooms," Cass said. "When they don't remove the food, then they run the risk of having either mice or cockroaches in their classrooms."

Since starting an IPM program, Cass said he has noticed the office staff and teachers being very conscientious about removing food sources and letting him know when there is a problem in certain locations.

Another issue is water. Pests seek out water, from many sources, especially when it is dry outdoors.

"Dripping faucets are one problem, but there are others you might not even think about," Grasswitz said. "One common practice is giving potted plants a good watering on Fridays and leaving standing water in the pot's saucer over the weekend. This is an open invitation to pests. Sometimes you just don't realize what pests can get to when the school is closed."