Initiative Improves Pest Management in Boston’s Public Housing


(Beyond Pesticides, September 16, 2008)

Responding to grassroots pressure highlighting the impact of pests and pesticides on public health, the Boston Public Housing Authority (BHA) is promoting integrated pest management (IPM) through its Healthy Pest Free Housing Initiative Project (HPFHI) in the city’s public housing facilities. The program, which was launched after the Committee for Boston Public Housing, a tenant rights group, began looking into the connection between respiratory health, asthma and housing conditions in 1995, is now proving successful.

“The project’s goal is to provide intensive in-home and community-based education designed to change individual and community practices regarding pest control and the use of pesticides,” explains John Kane, IPM coordinator and planner for the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). Mr. Kane says that there has been up to a 75 percent reduction in work orders dealing with pests and a huge increase in the quality of life for the residents.

Over 1,000 BHA households in eight developments have received in-home and community-based support and education to encourage integrated pest management practices that focus on prevention and use “least toxic” pesticides only as a last resort. BHA hopes to make the project sustainable and expand their efforts into additional developments. “People are beginning to see they no longer have to live with their pest problems. They feel empowered by being able to take control of their pest problems and their health,” says Mr. Kane.

The HPFHI project has moved the standard pest management practice from routinely spraying pesticides in an entire complex to inspections and an integrated management plan. Prevention is emphasized, and tactics such as sealing up cracks and crevices, cutting off water supply, and removing habitat are all steps that are taken once unit is vacated and during yearly unit inspections. Insecticide gels are used as a last resort. While environmentalists note that the plan is a vast improvement, Beyond Pesticides cautions that not all baits and gels are created equal. To learn more about the volatility of commonly used pesticides, see the article, “How Safe Is Your Bait?” from the Winter 2007-08 issue of Pesticides and You.

According to BHA, at the beginning of the project every home tested showed evidence of at least one pesticide that has either been banned or restricted to non-residential use. Nearly 50 percent had cockroach allergen levels in excess of asthma sensitivity exposure.

Teams of IPM health advocates are providing outreach and in-home education in eight BHA developments involved in the project. “Our team trains the residents in IPM, and we also utilize a train-the-trainer approach in which people are trained to provide education about IPM to newly arriving residents during their orientation,” said Mr. Kane. The Boston Public Health Commission has also developed informational brochures and posters in multiple languages that can be used in public housing situations and beyond.

To enhance their educational efforts, a “pesticide buyback” occurs twice a year and gives residents an opportunity to trade unused pesticides for safer products and provides another opportunity for health advocates to connect with residents. “Buybacks are scheduled to coincide with Boston’s biannual residential hazardous waste collection. So far, this project has collected a wide array of pesticides including over the counter sprays and bombs, as well as restricted use pesticides that by law can only be applied by a licensed professional,” Mr. Kane explains.

HPFHI is also working towards translating project findings into proposed policies. At the state level, the Massachusetts Public Health Association will educate its members about IPM, support IPM advocacy and provide training for community health workers. In addition, the Asthma Regional Council is developing a handbook and kit on IPM for building managers and promoting it to the 375 housing authorities in New England. A similar tool will be aimed at health plans interested in home environmental assessments, education and supplies.

Although programs like Boston’s HPFHI are seeing some success, asthma and other respiratory illnesses remain a huge problem in the U.S. Since the mid-1980s, asthma rates have skyrocketed to epidemic levels, particularly in young children. In the U.S. alone, around 16 million people suffer from asthma. Asthma is a serious chronic disorder of the lungs characterized by recurrent attacks of bronchial constriction, which cause breathlessness, wheezing, and coughing. Asthma is a dangerous, and in some cases life-threatening disease. Researchers have found that pesticide exposure can induce a poisoning effect linked to asthma. For more information see Beyond Pesticides’ Asthma, Children and Pesticides brochure.

Partners in the project include the Boston Public Health Commission, Committee for Boston Public Housing, West Broadway Task Force, Boston University School of Public Health, and local, state, and regional policy and advocacy organizations. W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency fund the project, which affects over 23,000 public housing residents.