A decade ago, when Kathleen Hallal’s three young sons were battling auto-immune disorders, the Irvine, California, resident realized that powerful herbicides were often being sprayed in the school yards, fields, and parks where they spent most of their time.
“I’d see my kids stretch and roll in the grass. Other kids would be digging in the dirt where they had just sprayed Roundup. No one paid attention to the yellow warning signs,” said Hallal, referring to the controversial herbicide that contains glyphosate.
Hallal contacted pediatricians, organic lawn managers, even a retired scientist from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For over two years, she pushed the school district to ban glyphosate and other synthetic pesticides—and succeeded in 2015. The following year, she formed a group with several other parents and they convinced the entire city of Irvine to ban pesticides in public spaces and switch to organic lawn care. In the following months, activists in nearby cities of San Clemente, Malibu, and Burbank also moved to implement bans.
Today, Hallal’s organization, Non Toxic Communities, is a model for others around the country hoping to do away with herbicides in public spaces and transition to organic lawn management. And while she says the fight was lonely and arduous for a long time, over the past two years, hundreds of cities, counties, schools, and other entities have followed suit. They include Los Angeles County, the University of California system, Hawaii County, Miami, Tucson, and Seattle. Many places have made these moves amid intense public interest stemming from a flood of litigation against Bayer (formerly Monsanto), the maker of Roundup.
“People from new cities are contacting us daily, [wanting] to form a group in their community,” said Hallal. “We give them materials and guidance… There is no excuse for using these toxic products when there are alternative methods.”
The new pesticide ban movement comes at a critical time, say advocates, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Donald Trump is relaxing safeguards for several pesticides and herbicides. Earlier this year, the agency announced it will re-evaluate how it handles requests by states to impose stricter rules on pesticides, essentially limiting regulations. The EPA is also proposing restricting how human studies (known as epidemiological studies) are used in official rule-making.
“We cannot trust what’s going on at EPA; it’s being dismantled,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “Unless local communities take up the fight for the environment, we’re not being protected.”
Awareness Grows Amid a Flurry of Lawsuits
For decades—since the seminal 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book that exposed the hazards of synthetic pesticides—environmentalists have been ringing alarm bells about these chemicals. Most of the attention has been focused on agricultural use and pesticides’ impacts on farmworkers, their children, and the environment, as well as the potential for harm from pesticide residue found on produce. Pushback against the chemicals has led to the banning of DDT, the formation of the EPA, and the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, among other things.
And yet while about 40 million acres of managed turf (i.e., residential and commercial lawns, golf courses, parks, etc.) is tended across the U.S. and about 88 million households in the U.S. use pesticides, there has been little interest in and virtually no research on herbicides sprayed in urban and suburban areas for cosmetic purposes, nor on the effects of such spraying on the health of ordinary Americans.
In the 1990s, the New York attorney general’s office released a report on the toxicity of golf course maintenance. Titled “Toxic Fairways,” it showed that golf courses on Long Island use 4 to 7 times the average amount of pesticides used in agriculture, on a pound per acre basis. Then, in 1996, a study revealed that golf course superintendents are subject to higher mortality rates from some cancers than other Americans. But none of that appeared to move the needle on policy.
Now, concerns about pesticide use appear to be taking center stage in mainstream consciousness with the current wave of lawsuits against Bayer.
In 2015, after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen with a particular association to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, thousands of cancer victims sued Bayer. More than 42,700 lawsuits have been filed as of October, Bayer said this fall. In the first three trials in U.S. courts, all three of the juries have ruled against Bayer, awarding large damages to the plaintiffs. And the possibility of a settlement is on the horizon.
Roundup has been around since the 1970s and is the most widely used herbicide in the world. And while the lawsuits also allege that the company was aware of the dangers for years but did nothing to warn consumers, Bayer still maintains the chemical is safe.
“The overwhelming weight of science and regulatory reviews by leading health authorities around the world for more than 40 years have determined that glyphosate can be used safely and is not carcinogenic,” Bayer spokeswoman Charla Lord told Civil Eats in a written statement. Pesticide regulating authorities in the U.S. agree. The EPA has maintained for years that glyphosate does not pose a risk to public health and isn’t carcinogenic in humans; in April, the agency again reaffirmed its belief that the chemical is safe.
Independent scientists strongly disagree, however. After IARC’s classification, an international group of scientists concurred in 2016 that glyphosate may cause cancer. The scientists said regulatory authorities rely on non-publicly available studies provided by industry researchers that have not been peer-reviewed. And earlier this year, a University of Washington analysis found that exposure to glyphosate increases the risks of some cancers by more than 40 percent.
While the EPA focuses on acute exposure—whether or not a person who is exposed once or twice will suffer or die—endocrinology research has shown that pesticides accumulate over a lifetime through chronic low-dose exposure and are even passed on through generations. Children are especially at risk because their small bodies are more vulnerable to toxins. The chemicals have also been shown to harm the health of dogs who are frequent visitors to parks and other green areas sprayed with herbicides.
In defiance of the EPA, California has listed glyphosate as a potentially cancer-causing substance under Proposition 65. And more recently, Vietnam and Austria have moved to ban glyphosate (though Austria’s ban may be hindered by a legal technicality), Germany has said it will ban it by 2023, and France has banned Roundup and most other glyphosate-based weedkillers.
Across the Country, Banning Pesticides in Urban Areas
Environmentalists have leveraged the flood of lawsuits, new analysis, and media publicity to spur a new movement against the use of toxic chemicals in public and private spaces.
Lord, the Bayer spokeswoman, said such policies and bans are not science-driven. “Decisions to restrict glyphosate use have not been based on independent regulatory risk assessments nor the full body of scientific evidence on glyphosate’s safety,” she said.
Limiting exposure to pesticides in urban areas has faced a major obstacle, said Feldman of Beyond Pesticides, in part because so much of it gets used on private lawns. And 43 states have laws that preempt local governments’ authority to restrict pesticide use on private property beyond existing state-level regulations.
The inability to control what residents spray on their lawns is an issue, Feldman said, because pesticide drifts through the air and travels through groundwater. It also explains why public places have moved to the center of the fight.
Beyond Pesticides has worked with municipalities to pass pesticide restrictions mostly on public property, but Feldman said pushback from park officials and other administrators against organic lawn and weed management can be intense. “We were told it couldn’t be done and it wasn’t financially viable,” he said. “The organic agriculture industry has proven that it can be done.”
Last year, Beyond Pesticides teamed up with Stonyfield, the organic yogurt maker, to help launch the StonyFIELDS #PlayFree initiative. The company, known for promoting social and environmental causes, will help 35 cities across the U.S. through the transition away from synthetic pesticides and herbicides, including 10 last year and another 10 this year.
Stonyfield chose the project because “Being proactive goes beyond what you’re eating,” said Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield’s co-founder and a life-long soccer coach. Hirshberg said millions of children play in parks and on fields in the U.S. and studies show two-thirds of those parks are sprayed with synthetic chemicals. These can be inhaled, absorbed by children’s skin, or tracked inside homes on feet, hands, or pets, he said.
Hirshberg said Stonyfield commissioned a survey last year which showed that while 69 percent of American parents are looking to lessen exposure to pesticides in food, nearly the same number of parents (67 percent) do not consider sports fields, playgrounds, or parks to be of concern.
The cities selected by Stonyfield range in climates and soil conditions. They’ll each receive a $5,000 grant and be paired up with a local or national nonprofit for technical assistance on the ground. “We wanted to go at the skeptics to show this can work all over the country,” said Hirshberg. [Disclosure: Stonyfield has been a supporter of Civil Eats in the past.]
The municipalities involved in Stonyfield’s project are enthusiastic about the results of transitioning to organic lawn care. “Change can be difficult, and the chemical companies are good at telling us their products are great,” said Lesley Riddle, the public works director with the city of Hyattsville, Maryland. But, she added, “Our fields look better than they ever have.”
Riddle said the city had some upfront costs to transition to organics—it used the Stonyfield grant to purchase a tea-composter—but it’s already seeing savings due to using fewer inputs and less water. And, Riddle said, she expects the savings will grow as the city restores soil biology in its parks and on soccer fields. City staff are also sharing results with curious homeowners.
Banning Glyphosate Is Not Enough
Easing off herbicides isn’t always easy for public entities, advocates say. The first challenge: changing the mindset of decision makers and park administrators who are used to synthetic inputs, said Kim Konte of Non Toxic Neighborhoods, an LLC that’s assisting the cities selected by Stonyfield.
“The biggest hurdle is trying something new,” said Konte. “A lot of the land managers have been maintaining parks in a certain way for a long time, and it’s a complete shift in how we’re asking them to manage the landscape.”
Yet landscape managers often consent when they hear about the benefits reaped by other cities that have gone through the transition to organic management, she said. Weeds don’t come back, turf conditions improve. As soil health increases, so does soil’s water retaining ability—meaning that cities are able to save significantly on irrigation. And there’s no chemical runoff from parks, so cities can better protect their waterways.
While the shift requires an initial investment, by year three when soil goes back to its natural state, cities usually start to save money, Konte said.
Another challenge is convincing administrators not to replace glyphosate with another chemical that may be harmful to people’s health, and to encourage proactive organic care. Non Toxic Neighborhoods offers communities an online organic toolkit, which includes a product list, examples of other cities’ approaches to organic turf maintenance, and supporting research. The goal, said Konte, is to make sure landscape contractors and city staff have the tools to maintain the landscape aesthetics that everyone expects and that organic maintenance is effective and not cost prohibitive.
Cities that work with Beyond Pesticides and Stonyfield also get help from a professional horticulturist. Chip Osborne, president of Massachusetts-based Osborne Organics and founder of the Organic Landscape Association, has helped some 100 public entities across the U.S. to transition to organic lawn management. He also has spoken at thousands of schools and cities, testified at city councils and legislatures, and worked with administrators to teach organic methods.
Transitioning to organic lawn care isn’t just about swapping synthetic herbicides for organic ones, Osborne said. Rather, it’s about regenerative land care—a system that relies on the same principles as regenerative agriculture. ” We talk about a whole systems change,” Osborne said. “Instead of just putting product down, we’re focusing on the health of the soil … as opposed to (the appearance of) the lawn or field. We try to sequester carbon and bring resources back to the soil.”
Hallal’s group Non Toxic Communities is launching a nationwide training program, called the “Organic Land Care project,” which will train landscapers and city employees to use organic lawn and weed management. Hallal developed the training after large mainstream landscaping companies (which frequently contract with cities, schools, or homeowner associations) began approaching the group for help.
“They’re getting so much pressure and they don’t know how to switch to organic methods,” she said. “All they know is how to spray chemicals.”
Push for Herbicide-Free Campuses
Students are also at the forefront of the fight to ban pesticides in public spaces. Mackenzie Feldman, (no relation to Jay Feldman of Beyond Pesticides) an activist and University of California, Berkeley alumna, advocated for the reduction in pesticide use on her campus after realizing that the same herbicide she’d been learning about being sprayed on farms was also used where she and her team played volleyball.
She then pushed for U.C. President Janet Napolitano to issue a temporary suspension on the use of glyphosate-based herbicides at all 10 U.C. locations.
Feldman founded Herbicide-Free Campus, a nonprofit whose mission is to ban the weed killers at schools across the country. The group offers a step-by-step toolkit and brings in Osborne to help once the schools are ready to transition to organic lawn care.
This year, Feldman hired three campus coaches, which allows her to expand the organization’s reach beyond the U.C. system, and the group is currently onboarding a dozen new schools, including Chapman University in Orange, California, University of Northern Iowa, University of Hawaii, and Fordham University in New York City.
The best part of her job, said Feldman, is working with other young people. “Students get mad,” she said. “You don’t think you’re sitting and laying in grass that has cancer causing, reproductive harming chemicals. They’re like, ‘Wait, how do we find out what’s sprayed? What’s the next step to stop these?’ It’s really cool to activate and motivate them.”
Within the U.C. system, President Napolitano brought together a task force to examine the issue. It uncovered that the U.C. schools have not been recording how much herbicide is being sprayed on campus, Feldman said. In a show of potential challenges, one of the members of the task force—Brad Hanson, a scientist at U.C. Davis—was removed after public documents showed he was being paid by the pesticide industry. Napolitano will make a decision early next year about whether to permanently ban glyphosate and/or other herbicides on the campuses.
Feldman said the ultimate goal is to expand the bans “beyond people who are privileged to attend a university.” That includes protecting farmworkers, passing stricter pesticide regulations on a national scale, and pressuring the EPA to enforce them.
Feldman is buoyed by the number of schools and communities wanting to move away from using herbicides and pesticides. “Things are moving fast… there are new bans happening every day,” Feldman said. “But also, people are literally dying and we’re not moving fast enough.”
This article has been updated to reflect the facts that Non Toxic Neighborhoods is not a nonprofit, and that Non Toxic Communities’ project is called Organic Land Care, not Organic Lawn Care.