Herbicide (Roundup) Use by the City of Newark, Delaware

The City of Newark, Delaware:

I want to preface this post by saying that I love my city government here in Newark, Delaware.  One of the factors in my choosing to move back to this town was the way that I liked the direction that the city is moving in, and I have felt consistently well-represented by elected officials.  The city is doing many things to promote sustainability.  The city passed a law requiring that any modifications to property in the city must be done so as to not increase runoff from the property.  Also, the city has been promoting walkability through the encouraging of mixed-use buildings, and has been transforming the formerly sparsely laid-out Elkton Road into a more compact, walkable, Main-street-like commercial district.

Storefronts along a brick sidewalk

The City of Newark has been encouraging pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development like this new building on Main St.

The City of Newark is making do with very few resources–especially considering that they were recently hit with a $38 million lawsuit.  This amount is roughly equal to the city’s 2010 annual operating budget [PDF], which is currently running a $1.5M surplus, in spite of raising taxes less than they had anticipated  — impressive in these tight economic times.  Although I’m disappointed with the city’s actions that led to the lawsuit, I think that overall the city is an example of an efficiently-run local government.

Herbicide Use in Phillips Park and the City of Newark:

I birdwatch regularly in Phillips park and along the James F. Hall Trail, a bicycle- and pedestrian-path in the city.  Parts of this path have a gravel area along the edge for runners:

Gravel along the side of a paved pedestrian & bicycle path

A stretch of the James F. Hall Trail with gravel along the side

When walking on this path a few days ago, I noticed that some herbicide had been sprayed in the gravel area.  This immediately concerned me as I regularly see children playing on this path, people running barefoot, and dogs poking their noses in places along this path.  I had seen evidence of herbicide use before–in the form of dead plants with no other explanation of why they had died–but in this case I clearly saw that something had been sprayed on the plants.  Concerned, I called the city and wrote a letter to the head of the parks and recreation department.

My Personal Views on Herbicide Use:

My personal views on synthetic herbicides is that they are generally pollutants, and should be used with great restraint and caution, only when absolutely necessary.  Synthetic herbicides can have negative impacts on human health as well as on ecosystems.  I also think that until proven conclusively by a consensus of independent scientific research that the herbicide is safe, it should be assumed that they may not be safe.  I do not trust the marketing and safety information published by companies that sell or have an interest in promoting herbicides, since these companies have a potential conflict of interest that could hinder them from providing unbiased information.  Rather, I think that in evaluating the safety of pesticides, one must rely on independent scientific studies whose results have been published in reputable peer-reviewed journals.

My own personal experience is that herbicides are unnecessary.  I have never used any herbicides in my garden and in any other context.  I have found old-fashioned mechanical control methods (pulling weeds, trimming with mechanical clippers and edgers, and mowing) to be more than adequate to keep weeds in check.  When mechanical control is too time-consuming, I’ve found that one can avoid herbicide use by adjusting your idea of what you want to control.  Leaving certain areas of a garden to grow naturally not only can reduce the amount of work, but it can provide peripheral benefits.  Many weeds have uses as food, and those that are not eaten by humans are often eaten by a number of insects, birds, and other animals.  Also, if you’re not growing anything useful in the area, letting it grow wild provides habitat for birds and predatory insects which will keep pests in the rest of your garden under control.  Vegetation can also provides a buffer zone between gardens.  Most insects are highly specialized in what plants they eat, and thus pest infestations can quickly spread through a monoculture of one type of plant.  But when a wild area with a diversity of plants separates two gardens, pests are slower to spread from one area to the other.

I think a large portion of the herbicide use in Phillips Park and along the James F. Hall trail is completely unnecessary.  The picture here demonstrates such superfluous use:

Herbicide sprayed on plants growing in mulch; highlighted with red circles

Herbicide was sprayed in Phillips Park on plants growing in the mulch at the base of trees.

This herbicide usage strikes me as unnecessary.  There’s nothing growing in this mulch–from an ecological perspective it’s wasted space.  Grasses and non-woody plants could be allowed to grow wild in this bed.  Tree saplings could be pulled by hand in no more time than it takes to apply herbicides.  Allowing the bed to fill out naturally would provide greater ecological value.  And I honestly don’t think most people would notice if the bed were allowed to become overgrown–it might even look more visually attractive, as the park contains many beautiful wildflowers that bloom at various times of year.  Perhaps black raspberries would come up wild here, and could serve as edible landscaping.

The City’s Response to My Letter:

The city of Newark, as it always does, responded very promptly to my request for more information.  The Parks Superintendent wrote me a direct reply:

When spraying for weeds we only use Roundup with blue marker dye. Roundup is a safe weed control chemical that in fact is used by some organic gardeners. The targeted plant absorbs the Roundup thru the stomata of the leaves and the material is translocated down to the roots. Once in the roots the chemical kills the root structure. What chemical is not absorbed within the first 6 to 8 hours then breaks down and within the next 12 hours totally disappears from the environment. Roundup is used by many homeowners and can be purchased over the counter. Roundup also has a spreader/sticker mixed in so it cannot be easily washed off should it rain after application. If you have any other questions please feel free to call me on my cell.

One thing in this email I immediately took issue with.  The statement that roundup is used by “organic gardeners”.  While organic gardening has many definitions and there is a degree to which there are disputes about what constitutes “organic gardening”, the fundamental basis of organic gardening is that it refrains from the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers–and instead relies on naturally-occurring methods of weed and pest control.  The way I see it (and I anticipate that virtually all organic gardeners would agree with me on this point) is that if you use roundup or any other synthetic herbicide or pesticide, you are not practicing organic gardening.

But that is an aside…I’m not interested in technicalities of whether or not the city is using “organic” practices–I’m interested in sustainability.  What I care about is whether or not the pesticide use is a best practice, whether its use is truly necessary, and whether it has unintended negative consequences.

My Skepticism of the Claims of Roundup’s Safety:

Monsanto, the company marketing Roundup, has an established track record of overstating the safety and understating the environmental impacts of its products, including Roundup.  The statements in the email I received sent up some red flags to me–especially given that Monsanto has been twice convicted for false advertising in association with Roundup, both times for claiming that it is safer than it is. [Source-1996 NY State Conviction, Source-2009 France Conviction]

The statement that roundup is legal and used by many homeowners is irrelevant: it would be a logical fallacy to conclude that this says anything about its safety just because it is legal and widely used.  For example, many people smoke, and smoking is legal, but it is well-known that it is harmful to your health and the health of those around you.

Also, the claim that “What chemical is not absorbed within the first 6 to 8 hours then breaks down and within the next 12 hours totally disappears from the environment.” sounds too good to be true.  I quickly located an old (1989) study that documented that glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Roundup, can actually persist in the soil for over 2 years, and one of its metabolites can persist for longer. [Source]

My Research on Roundup:

First I want to note that researching the safety and environmental impacts of Roundup are more complex than just researching that of the active ingredient.

Graphical Representation of Glyphosate Molecule

The glyphosate molecule--glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, but is only one of many chemicals in Roundup that have been found to have negative impacts on human health and the environment.

Roundup is a blend of a number of synthetic chemicals; the active ingredient is glyphosate, but the blend also contains other chemicals, including ones called adjuvants which increase the effects of the glyphosate.  Much of the research claiming that Roundup is relatively safe or has minimal impacts seems to be based on incorrectly citing studies that study glyphosate alone.  I found a recent (2009) study in a toxicology journal that established that the total formulation of Roundup is toxic to human embryos and other human cells, and that this effect is not due to glyphosate but rather, due to the adjuvants in Roundup.  Two of these adjuvants were found to be harmful to humans, and were found to be even more harmful when combined with glyphosate.  The authors concluded that “…the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death around residual levels to be expected, especially in food and feed derived from R formulation-treated crops.” [Source]

Perhaps more concerning, it is not certain exactly what is in Roundup.  I also learned about a recent controversy in France: an environmental group and an organic farmer have accused Monsanto of placing a different formulation on the market from the formulation that was cleared by regulatory agencies.  The organization conducted its own scientific tests and found an ingredient that was not registered in the mixture that was authorized, and that they claim is known to induce cell mutations in the presence of glyphosate. [Source in French]

Effects on Amphibians:

Furthermore, I also found evidence of negative effects on amphibians.  While glyphosate has a relatively low toxicity to mammals and birds, the roundup formulation as a whole is known to be highly toxic to amphibians such as frogs.  One study found it killed a large percentage of tadpoles and aquatic frogs even when at a lower concentration than would be expected to reach in nature; it killed an even higher percentage of terrestrial frogs.  The article also remarked, following a similar trend to what I found above, that the chemical culprit was not glyphosate, but rather, was the surfactant polyethoxylated tallowamine, considered by Monsanto to be an “inert” or “inactive” ingredient.  [Source]  Since frogs and toads naturally live in this area, I think this is solid reason to be extremely cautious with the use of this chemical in this area.

Stream in a park

Phillips park contains this stream as well as an extensive wetland area.

Phillips park also contains a stream and extensive wetland area.  I regularly observe multiple species of frogs and toads in the park, and I am pretty sure that some of these species breed in the wetlands in the park, as I regularly hear their mating calls.

Call to Action:

On the basis of the information I found, I am calling on the city of Newark to:

  • Reduce their use of Roundup on all city property, using it only in the cases where it is absolutely necessary and no safer, realistic alternative exists.
  • In considering the use of future herbicides or other chemicals, seek out products whose exact formulation is known, and where the exact formulation has been established to be safe for humans and ecosystems by multiple independent scientific studies.
  • Maintain city property without herbicides wherever possible.  Consider leaving more areas unmaintained, and maintain the remaining areas through mowing, trimming, and mechanical weeding.  This is based on the premise that it is better for us to adjust our sense of aesthetics to the most sustainable practice, rather than to sacrifice sustainability for aesthetic considerations.
  • If the city still finds these alternatives too expensive or time-consuming, the city could solicit volunteers to maintain their property mechanically.  I know that I would certainly volunteer my time to weed or trim flower beds if I knew it could contribute to reducing or eliminating the use of herbicides.

What can you do?

  • Comment on this post or let me know by some other means, if you live, work, or have an interest in the city of Newark and want to encourage the city to reduce their use of herbicides.
  • If you do not live in or near Newark, consider exploring these issues wherever you do live.  If you find a municipality that has successfully reduced or eliminated their use of herbicides, please contact me so we can use this municipality as a positive example and perhaps learn from how they achieved this goal.
  • Give feedback on the “Call to Action” — how could we modify or improve it to make it more ambitious or more realistic?

This is only the first stage of action.  I am planning to put together a petition to let the city know that people care about this issue, but I want to get feedback and build a consensus about what we are advocating for, before putting together anything of this sort.  Thank you!

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1 Response to Herbicide (Roundup) Use by the City of Newark, Delaware

  1. Cis says:

    Well, Al, this is a tricky issue. I disagree that it takes the same amount of time to pull up saplings as to apply herbicide. Believe me, I spend a lot of time doing this. And as a runner I would consider the plain gravel path without grass patches far preferable to one with lumps of grass, dandelions, etc, which can cause twisted ankles. Pulling up these unwelcome plants is back-breaking work. The mulched areas at the base of trees are a bit different: there you could, perhaps, plant a nice ground cover (for example, native ginger). Blackberries get out of control awfully quickly and need to be contained. Might there be a safer, effective herbicide? Remember that parks are by definition spaces where nature is somehow contained and shaped by human presence. The question is where to draw the line.
    I like all your photos.

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