(Updated 6:15 p.m.) Environmental activists from across the state packed a hearing room last week to argue against the proposed rollback of a recent law banning pesticides on school grounds.

“We have proven beyond a doubt that pesticides harm young children,” Sen. Ed Meyer, co-chair of the Environment Committee, said. “The message that has to go out today is that the health of our young children is under attack from the pesticide lobby, and we have to do everything in our power to thwart that attack.”

Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides because of their smaller bodies and developing nervous systems, according to Meyer.

Despite support for the existing ban from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the bill was voted out of the Planning and Development Committee and has been placed on the House of Representatives’ calendar for possible action.

Meyer said the bill is being advanced by pro-pesticide forces “who are upset with Connecticut’s attempts to transition from decades of pesticide-laden playing fields” to playing fields maintained with purely organic methods.

“The ban hasn’t been in effect very long and now the pesticide industry wants to plow it under,” Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, co-chair of the Environment Committee, said. “They want to spread their poison on the ground because they pray to the almighty dollar.”

Current law prohibits pesticide use on the grounds of elementary and middle schools and daycare centers. The bill would repeal the ban and allow “integrated pest management” (IPM) for school fields. While IPM is often touted as a common-sense approach to managing agricultural fields, environmentalists and children’s health advocates warn that IPM allows groundskeepers to freely apply pesticides to school grounds and fields.

“IPM permits the use of quite toxic pesticides,” Jerry Silbert, M.D., executive director of the Watershed Partnership, said. “It’s a rather weak and toothless regulation compared to a ban.”

The state’s largest municipal lobby disagrees.

“The use of pesticides through an Integrated Pest Management Program is the common sense approach to addressing pest populations while ensuring the health and safety of those inhabiting a facility,” Kachina Walsh-Weaver of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said. “The US EPA urges all schools to utilize IPM for this purpose by 2015.  Absent an effective method, towns and cities have been facing increasing costs to deal with emergency situations (which then call for a greater level of pesticides to be used) and the replacement of playing fields.”

The Environmental Protection Agency supports IPM for school grounds.

“The EPA recommends that schools use integrated pest management (IPM) to reduce pesticide risk and exposure to children. Put simply, IPM is a safer, and usually less costly option for effective pest management in a school community,” according to the EPA website. “A school IPM program uses common sense strategies to reduce sources of food, water and shelter for pests in your school buildings and grounds. An IPM program takes advantage of all pest management strategies, including the judicious and careful use of pesticides when necessary.”

“We have been big supporters of IPM for the agricultural world, but not for the playground,” Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, said last week. “We’ve gained this ground and don’t want to lose it.”

“IPM means it’s virtually impossible to tell how much pesticide is being applied to a field,” Dr. Silbert, said. “There are now documented safe, cost-effective ways to maintain school lawns and sports fields without the use of toxic chemicals. It’s appalling that involuntarily exposing children to toxic pesticides at schools is even being considered.”

Among those urging lawmakers to stand fast in the face of pressure from the pesticide lobby was Stacy Prince of Westport, whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia as a three-year-old and who is at risk for other cancers because of the chemotherapy that saved her life.

“One of the first things I learned was the connection between pesticide exposure and childhood cancers,” Prince said. “If HB 5155 passes, it will be a major setback for the protection of young children. Please don’t allow pesticide companies to make my child and others ‘externalized costs’ of their profits.”

Proponents of the bill contend that school fields are deteriorating because organic turf management is not only costly, but also ineffective. Since the law took effect on July 1, 2010, the Connecticut Parks Association (CPA) and the national pesticide trade association, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), have lobbied hard against the pesticide ban, leading to an additional year of organic phase-in for school athletic fields. Also supporting the bill is the industry-sponsored Connecticut Environmental Council (CTEC), an umbrella organization that represents groundskeepers, pesticide applicators and the Connecticut Farm Bureau, among others.

“Over the 18 months since the ban took effect, school grounds have deteriorated until the athletic fields are almost unplayable,” CTEC’s lobbyist, Michael Dugan, said. “IPM allows ‘judicious use’ of pesticides, which has already removed tons of pesticides from athletic fields while maintaining them in playable conditions. Simply put, organic methods don’t work and are expensive to maintain.”

William McMinn, director of facilities for Madison Public Schools, said they’ve made an effort to address the ban on pesticides and have met with Dr. Silbert and The Watershed Partnership many times, but despite these efforts “within 18 months, we had a substantial change in the turf thickness on the athletic fields.”

“Weeds were out of control around the buildings and landscape beds,” McMinn testified in February. “It is my opinion that the fields will get worse, not better if we do not change the law to allow the comprehensive and effective IPM programs.”

Raymond Purtell, director of Glastonbury Parks & Recreation, also testified in support of the legislation. He said the bill includes provisions that are “more than sufficient to protect the public and safeguard the environment.”

He said the bill requires the pesticides to be applied by a licensed pesticide applicator with a certification. School staff, parents, and guardians are notified in writing about the pest management plan, and students and staff may register to be notified prior to the planned pesticide applications. Also applications can not be made during school hours, and records of the applications must be maintained for five years.

Ray Favreau, director of the South Windsor Parks & Recreation, said since passing the ban “we, as public grounds care takers, have lost critical tools from our professional tool box.”

He said it’s akin to taking a stethoscope away from a doctor, or a socket wrench away from a mechanic.

“At best, it makes the job much more difficult with less success and acceptable results,” Favreau said. Without IPM “we are faced with serious deterioration of athletic fields to the point of being unsafe, we are left with little to no remedial options for treatment of problems such as weeds or insects.”

“If fields are deteriorating from pesticide-free care it’s because the people responsible are not doing it correctly,” said Dr. Silbert, noting that prior to 1950, all school playing fields were maintained organically. “I don’t think the pro-pesticide forces appreciate the subtle and long-term effects lawn pesticides have on children’s health, even at low concentrations.”

But Bart Russell, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, told the Planning and Development Committee that he strongly supports the bill because towns need the flexibility to manage athletic fields to protect the safety of student athletes and protect their “considerable investment” in developing fields and grounds. He calls IPM critical to maintaining a “level playing field,” free from holes, bumps and clumps of weeds that may cause injuries to young athletes or trigger allergies and/or asthma attacks.

In a March 8 letter to the General Assembly, a coalition of environmental groups and children health advocates countered that exposure to pesticides can worsen asthma symptoms. “It’s important to understand that pesticides don’t make playing fields soft, they don’t fill bare spots or mud holes and they don’t grow grass. A transition to a natural, non-chemical approach to turf management must include training.”

Audubon Connecticut, the state organization of the National Audubon Society, offers free training to municipal groundskeepers who need help transitioning to an organic approach after decades of simply spraying pesticides on fields. “Since 2007 we have trained roughly 500 people—including municipal groundskeepers, commercial landscapers, golf club managers and private landowners—in natural (organic) turf management,” said Sandy Breslin, director of government affairs at Audubon Connecticut.

“HB 5155 is poised to seriously weaken Connecticut’s landmark school pesticide legislation after only one growing season and before it has had time to prove successful,” Breslin testified. “Requiring the use of so-called Integrated Pest Management on public and private school grounds at this juncture would seriously set back efforts to transition to a healthier and more sustainable school environment for our smallest and most vulnerable children, reversing legislation that also provides benefits for birds and other wildlife.”

On Friday, the Environment Committee will hold public hearings on another bill, which would prohibit synthetic pesticides, but add microbial and biochemical pesticides to the groundkeeper’s arsenal of weed-killers.