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Infrastructure & Services

Public is invited — New ways to fight weeds

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This is the second of two articles on
efforts to reduce local pesticide use.

The last time the Village of Yellow Springs sprayed pesticides on public land commonly used by residents was on June 12, 2013.

That was the day a Village maintenance worker applied a commercial herbicide to the grassy area of the Gaunt Park pool, accidentally administering it undiluted at 50 times the recommended strength.

Villagers were outraged about the potential short- and long-term effects of the herbicide, which contained the possible carcinogen 2,4-D. In response, Village Council immediately placed a moratorium on further pesticide spraying by the Village.

Five years later, Village practices have changed. Where the Village previously sprayed along sidewalks and street gutters, workers now pull weeds by hand or mechanically. And although the moratorium was lifted to address proliferating weeds near critical infrastructure, the approach Council directed has remained consistent, according to Village Manager Patti Bates: the Village doesn’t routinely spray.

“We started using organic or natural pesticides everywhere they could be effective,” Bates said of the years following the incident at the pool.

The Village has been developing new ways to manage its more than 200 acres of property in and around town without the use of chemical pesticides. What has been learned, what are the costs and benefits, and what are the next steps? What are the policies and practices of other local institutions, and why does it matter?

An ‘organic approach’

There is no official policy banning the Village from using pesticides. But Bates said she was directed by Council when she arrived in 2014 to continue all-natural approaches to land management on public land that began during the moratorium. Tanner Bussey, a member of the Village utility crew that maintains municipal parks, streets, sewers and buildings, said they switched to natural weed-killing products such as a solution of horticultural vinegar and epsom salt, along with more manual weeding. 

“It’s an organic approach,” he said.

Although Village maintenance workers do not spray on the vast majority of public land, land around municipal buildings and infrastructure and other various parcels, they do apply small amounts of chemical pesticides in some locations not commonly used by villagers, such as at the electric switching station along Yellow Springs-Fairfield Road, according to Bates.

Village workers have also begun training in more systemic approaches to land management.  With guidance from the Environmental Commission and local landscape designer Nadia Malarkey, Village workers have received trainings and started a demonstration plot to test out all-natural approaches.

The next step is an all-day workshop on Thursday, March 1, “Transitioning to Organic Lawn Care,” with natural turf care expert Chip Osborne, from Maine, and Jay Feldman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Beyond Pesticides. Village workers will attend the workshop, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in John Bryan Community Center Rooms A&B, but the event is also free and open to the public, those from other municipalities and landscape professionals (To RSVP, email Bates at Pbates@vil.yellowsprings.oh.us). A talk later that evening with Feldman and Osborne at 7:30 p.m. in the Antioch University Midwest auditorium is geared towards homeowners. 

Bates said that Yellow Springs is one of the few towns she is aware of in the region that is using an almost entirely chemical-free approach to land management.

“Right now we’re an outlier but a lot of my colleagues are starting to think this way, which is why we’re making this training available to other municipalities,” Bates said.

Are pesticides safe?

Pesticides, which include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides, are chemicals designed to control or kill pests, and all are toxic to some degree and pose some risk to adults, children, pets and wildlife, according to the EPA in a 2017 brochure, “Healthy Lawns, Healthy Environment.”

The EPA applies the formula “risk=toxicity x exposure” to evaluate the safety of pesticides, and claims health risks can be minimized, according to its website. By law, pesticides must be registered with the EPA, and are re-evaluated for safety every 15 years. But in a phone interview last week,  Feldman, of Beyond Pesticides, said that the EPA may be underestimating both factors in the equation, toxicity and exposure.

One problem is that the EPA doesn’t consider the cumulative and synergistic effects of toxins in the environment and the inert ingredients in pesticides that may constitute up to 99 percent of the formulation. Low-level exposure to pesticides over a lifetime is linked with various cancers as well as thyroid disorders, Parkinson’s Disease, infertility and reproductive harms, according to the Pesticide Action Network.

Also, exposure pathways such as toxins being tracked into homes on shoes or drifting into open windows on the wind are not analyzed when exposure is estimated, Feldman said. 

“There are these deficiencies with the EPA studies,” Feldman summarized. “There are data gaps, the problems of human physiology and paths of exposure. It’s extremely complex.”

Bolstering Feldman’s claims that herbicides are dangerous, recently the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has categorized 2,4-D as a “possible carcinogen” and glyphosate, an ingredient in the product Roundup and one of the most widely used agricultural herbicides, as a “probable carcinogen.”

But last December the EPA’s draft assessment of the health impacts of glyphosate contradicted the WHO in concluding that it is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” and that there are “no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label.”

In the face of conflicting evidence, Feldman advocated the precautionary principle, which states that in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof that an action is not harmful should fall on those taking the action. In the end, Feldman asked villagers to consider whether the risks are worth the benefits.

“If we can achieve our land management goals without the use of these chemicals, why wouldn’t we do it?”

Village focuses on soil health

What is the “systemic approach” the Village is using? According to Feldman, it includes soil testing, aeration, the timing of watering, “mowing high” and other strategies that are principally focused on creating healthy soil. 

“An organic system is focused principally on soil and an active soil biology that creates healthy plants more resistant to weeds,” Feldman explained.

In 2016, Osborn and Feldman trained maintenance staff from the Village and Antioch College as part of a $3,500 grant the Village received from Beyond Pesticides, which also paid for soil testing and experimentation on a local test plot — the softball field at Gaunt Park. The results of the test and soil-specific suggestions for local properties will be presented at the March workshop. If the test is successful and the cost per acre isn’t prohibitive, the Village may replicate the model on some of the approximately 50 acres of lawn the Village maintains, Bussey said.

Bussey, who was the employee directed by his superior to spray the herbicide at the pool in 2013, went on to say that while synthetic sprays have an immediate effect, in the long run the benefits of not using chemicals will pay off.

“As far as spraying chemicals goes, there are many applications that could make our jobs easier, but the costs are not worth it in terms of the impact on the environment and the impact on health and safety,” Bussey said. “I think it’s a good thing —it’s a shortcut we can go without.”

This article has been shortened for print. To read it in its entirety, which covers the costs and benefits to the Village and pesticide policy of the school district and Antioch College, visit the “From the Print” at http://www.ysnws.com.

Contact: mbachman@ysnews.com

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