Feature Chemical dependency 

Is there a pesticide-free future for San Antonio? Locally, no comprehensive document, official, or philosophy guides the City's use of chemicals.

At a mayoral debate at the Carver Community Center in April, candidates Julián Castro and Carroll Schubert were asked if they would support a resolution to reduce pesticide use on City property. Schubert said no, arguing speciously that anyone who has farmed knows that pesticides are necessary. Castro said, perhaps, but neither he nor his fellow Councilman knew the City's policy on pesticide and herbicide use.

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Perhaps that's because there is no policy. Each City department is required to hire only licensed applicators and adhere to federal and state pesticide regulations, but locally, no comprehensive document, official, or philosophy guides the City's use of chemicals.

Although San Antonio isn't among the nation's worst municipal pesticide users, the City applies harmful toxins on golf courses, in drainage ditches, and in public housing. Several U.S. cities are reducing pesticides and herbicides on public property while requiring greater accountability from their departments that use them. Unlike New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Lawrence, Kansas, where citizens' groups compelled their cities to scale back chemical usage, in San Antonio, there is no group solely devoted to making City property pesticide-free.

Related stories in this feature:

From Roundup to Dylox:
the City's chemistry set

Through an Open Records request, the Current reviewed a year's worth of pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide application records for property owned by the City and the San Antonio Housing Authority.

A kick in the grass
Spray-happy homeowners can't quit their herbicide habit

While pesticide advocates such as Schubert contend chemicals are necessary to control bugs and weeds, Laura Haight of the New York Public Interest Group, also known as NYPirg, disagrees.

"If pesticides worked, there would be no roaches in New York City," she jokes.

This spring, New York City passed a law that will phase out pesticides classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as known, likely, probable, or possible carcinogens, and those listed under California's Proposition 65, which identifies certain chemicals as developmental toxins. Environmental-justice groups and communities of color had lobbied for the law since 1998, when university and state health department studies suggested that low birth rates were linked to pesticide exposure.

Although former mayor Rudy Giuilani became infamous for "carpetbombing" the city with pesticides, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is reportedly more environmentally conscious - he led NYC's ban on smoking in public places - and signed the law on May 9. New York City will still use pesticides, albeit less-toxic ones. Rodent killers are allowed as long as they're in containerized baits. Biological, organic, and anti-microbial pesticides are exempt from the law.

As importantly, the City must post notice of pesticide applications 48 hours in advance, except for products that are exempt. The law also requires City agencies to maintain records of their pesticides applications and annually provide them to City Council.

Avoiding pesticide run-off is particularly crucial for San Antonio because of the sensitivity of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. Cedar Creek Golf Course, which is City-owned, and several private golf courses lie over the Recharge Zone; traffic islands, parks, and other City open space are also sprayed in that area. While no pesticides have been detected at or above maximum contaminant levels in Edwards Aquifer wells, they have been found at high levels in the groundwater and a shallow aquifer on and around the former Kelly Air Force Base. The source of the contamination was likely chemicals that were stored or used on base.

The City has eliminated from its arsenal many old, highly toxic brands such as Malathion, which, as one golf superintendent says, "killed everything." However, according to City pesticide records, chlorpyrifos, an ingredient linked to lung cancer, is still used on some golf courses, while 2-4-D, which can kill dogs, is applied on some drainage ditches and vacant property.

Eddie Cox at Willow Springs Golf Course says he has phased out 2-4-D. "I don't use it. It's old chemistry. It's cheap, but not environmentally friendly." He added that since he's reduced chemical usage at Willow Springs, "the lightning bugs have come back."

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The greatest strides in decreasing pesticide usage are occurring in city parks. The Lawrence, Kansas, City Commission recently voted to launch a one-year pilot program to eliminate pesticides, including Roundup, from a prominent neighborhood park.

Roger Steinbrock, marketing supervisor for the Lawrence Parks Department, said volunteers would help weed the park to reduce labor costs. "From our staff perspective, we don't use a lot of pesticides as it is," Steinbrock said.

However, Marie Stockett, a volunteer coordinator with the Pesticide-Free Parks Project, says that after petitioning the City Manager, she learned Lawrence used more than 70 pesticides on its property. In addition, the City didn't consistently notify citizens when spraying had occurred. "They were resistant to change that," she says, adding that when new signs were erected, they didn't mention pesticides, but rather called the treatments "a plant health-care program."

In 2003, Lawrence agreed to experiment with three parks, then quietly withdrew one from the program. The remaining two were low-profile, small parks, which defeated the project's purpose. "High-profile parks receive the most pesticides and are most likely to be played in," Stockett says.

Backed by her neighborhood association, Stockett met with parks officials and asked them to designate her neighborhood park pesticide-free. "They said they wouldn't because pesticides are safe. They said it was not possible and too expensive."

In response, Stockett compiled a 150-page report detailing the negative effects of pesticides on human health, especially children, wildlife, and the environment. She received support from a pediatrician who consults for the EPA, the local chapter of the Audubon Society, and several neighborhood associations. Then-mayor Mike Rundle took the City's lead on the project, which also targets downtown flowerbeds to be pesticide-free by January 2008.

The Lawrence project calls for City workers to post signs one week before and after any pesticide application at each entry point or along the perimeter of the park.

"I believe this is a good start," Stockett said. "I really like the idea of a volunteer program, but I don't think this project should rest on volunteers alone. Pesticides were used routinely. There should be a shift away from that."

She suggests that activists in other cities contact their respective parks departments and elected officials. "Share your concerns and tell them where you're at. Let them know you support this kind of effort and ask what they would need to make a decision."

According to a 2001 Consumers Union report, San Antonio's parks ranked among the state's lowest users of pesticides, but that doesn't mean they are chemical-free. The parks department uses almost exclusively Roundup or Rodeo, which is less toxic to fish and aquatic life. Yet Roundup isn't entirely innocuous, despite a demonstration by a City parks employee, who to vouch for Roundup's safety, reportedly once drank it. Roundup's primary ingredient is glyphosate; according to a 1999 American Cancer Society study, people chronically exposed to glyphosate are 2.7 times more likely to contract non-Hodgkin's lymphoma than those not exposed.

Assistant Parks Superintendent Chuck Taylor says his department also uses Integrated Pest Management, also known as IPM. They spread diatomaceous earth (crushed marine fossils) to kill ants, and blackstrap molasses, which is good on pancakes but also helps repel fire ants.

In public housing, pesticides are applied bimonthly in the form of sprays, fogs, or baits. Children are especially vulnerable to pesticide exposure because they tend to spend more time on the floor and tend to put objects in their mouths. (Texas public schools are required to use IPM for that reason.) Yet, instead of requiring residents to sign up for pesticide applications on their homes, they must request that their homes not be sprayed. Ingredients that will be banned in New York City, such as fipronil in the insecticide MaxForce (see box, this page) are still used in San Antonio Housing Authority properties.

Dale Burnett, executive director of the Texas Structural Pest Control Board, which licenses pesticide applicators, says people may have to accept bugs in their lives. "IPM isn't going to eradicate all bugs, but at my house I have bugs. I'll accept a certain amount of crickets or pillbugs," he says. "We can't poison everything, nor do we need to."

By Lisa Sorg

From Roundup to Dylox: the City's chemistry set

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Through an Open Records request, the Current reviewed a year's worth of pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide application records for property owned by the City and the San Antonio Housing Authority. These are the same records that City departments submit to the Texas Structural Pest Control Board for review. In some cases, the brand-name's formulation/concentration was not specified. For example, there are seven formulations for the herbicide Confront; each has different active ingredients and concentrations.

Buildings such as community centers, office buildings, and picnic facilities are sprayed monthly; SAHA housing is on a bimonthly schedule. Golf courses and parks vary their application schedules depending on the weather and the type of grass affected.

This is not a complete list of the human and environmental effects of these pesticides; in addition, other factors must be considered when determining health hazards, such as the age of the individual and the degree of exposure. More information is available at pesticideinfo.org and epa.gov.

Parks, including ball diamonds


Possible health/environmental effects:

The main ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate can cause eye and skin irritation and possibly non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It's toxic to fish, earthworms, and insects.

Golf courses

ConfrontTriclopyr or 2-4-D, depending on the type

Possible health/environmental effects:

Although similar to Roundup, Rodeo's formulation is less toxic to fish. 2-4-D is a possible carcinogen and groundwater contaminant. Triclopyr is less toxic, but still poses a threat to groundwater. The ingredient in Illoxan is on the EPA list of likely carcinogens; it kills fish and aquatic life.

Daconil, ThalinolChlorothalonil

Possible health/environmental effects:

Rubigan is moderately toxic to aquatic life and is suspected of disrupting hormonal production in humans. The ingredient in Fore is listed as a probable carcinogen by the EPA, and at sufficient exposure levels can harm a developing fetus. The ingredient in Daconil and Thalinol is also on the EPA list of probable carcinogens.

Merit 75 WSPImidacloprid

Possible health/environmental effects:

Dylox is moderately toxic, while Merit and Sevin kill aquatic life. Sevin is also a suspected hormonal disruptor.

City right-of-ways
(drainage channels, cemeteries, traffic islands, buy-out properties)

Round-Up, RodeoSee above
Arsenal ImazapyrIsopropylamine salt
Garlon-4 and -3 TriclopyrButoxyethyl ester
2-4-DSee above under Confront
Primo MaxxTrinexapac-ethyl

Possible health/environmental effects:

While Arsenal and Plateau are the least harmful of these chemicals, Primo Maxx and Garlon contain ingredients toxic to aquatic life.

Public housing

Tempo Ultra WPCyfluthrin
Talon GBrodifacoum

Possible health/environmental effects:

According to the EPA, the ingredients in MaxForce, Prevail, and Dragnet are possible carcinogens. Ingredients in MaxForce, Dragnet, Nylar, Demand, Suspend and Prevail can also harm aquatic life, while those in Demand and Dragnet are suspected of disrupting hormone production. Talon G is acutely toxic.

A kick in the grass

Spray-happy homeowners can't quit their herbicide habit

It is the envy of the neighborhood: the perfect lawn. A deep green, plush carpet with every blade evenly pedicured. Not a dandelion, a chinch-bug circle, or a fire-ant mound.

But nature is not so tidy. As grass, she allows vagabond plants and insects to loiter on her doorstep without an inkling of what the homeowners' association thinks.

A healthy lawn is just a beneficial nematode away

The San Antonio Botanical Garden uses Integrated Pest Management, which incorporates least-toxic pest control products, including beneficial insects and plants, microbes, and soaps. Its gardeners use the following products to control pests and weeds at the Garden.

Weeds: corn gluten meal; mulch; a concoction of 20 percent vinegar, 2 ounces of orange oil, and 1 ounce of soap

Fungus: corn meal; compost; potassium bicarbonate; sulfur

Diatomaceous earth (crushed fossils whose particles resemble microscopic broken glass) kills aphids, white flies, snails, slugs, grasshoppers, fleas, and ants by cutting them.
Spinosad, a microbe, is effective against aphids, mites, white flies, and ants.
Neem, a product of the neem tree, fights aphids, mites, white flies, scales, and leaf miners.
Orange oil and soap are also good alternatives for aphids, white flies, and mites.
Beneficial nematodes are microscopic worms that kill ants, fleas, and grubs.
And finally, beer will kill snails and slugs. At least they die happy. Use the cheap stuff.

Resources for organic lawn products

11601 Starcrest, 494-0239; 7561 E. Evans Rd., 651-6115, garden-ville.com

Texas Cooperative Extension, Bexar County
3355 Cherry Ridge, Suite 212, 467-6575, http://bexar-tx.tamu.edu/

Common Sense Pest Control Quarterly and The IPM Practitioner are journals published by the Bio-Integral Resource Center: birc.org/index.html

Activist groups

Beyond Pesticides: beyondpesticides.org
Pesticide Action Network North America: panna.org
Pesticides database: pesticideinfo.org
Texans for Alternatives to Pesticides: nopesticides.org
Consumers Union: consumersunion.org
Safer Pest Control Project: spcweb.org

Spurred by the lawn-care industry, homeowners bombard their yards with chemicals, using about 90 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These chemicals know no boundaries: A neighbor's pesticide application can drift, killing or sickening birds, pets, and other critters in your yard. It can run into storm drains and pollute the groundwater or be tracked inside your home on the soles of your shoes.

In The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, author Virginia Scott Jenkins writes that the lawn-care industry has likened killing weeds and insects to a military operation, thus branding products with such names as MaxForce, Dragnet, and Combat; some pesticides are similar to those chemicals used in World War II. And while licensed applicators ostensibly (but not always) use chemicals according to the label, homeowners tend to try to save a village by destroying it: If 1 ounce of Roundup kills a weed, 4 ounces must annihilate it.

"We tend to overuse chemicals," says Charlotte Wells of Texans for Alternatives to Pesticides. "It's a quick fix."

Golf courses often - and sometimes justifiably - take a bad rap for their use of chemicals, but spray-happy homeowners are equally culpable. While many San Antonians were alarmed over the PGA Village's potential contamination of the sensitive Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, stringent environmental controls and monitoring on the golf course, if followed, could reduce the likelihood of contamination of the drinking water. However, the residential portion of the project - and its hundreds of lawns - would not be subject to the same restrictions.

Some states and cities are moving toward strict pesticide laws and encouraging citizens to use organic or non-toxic methods. In January, Connecticut lawmakers introduced legislation to allow municipalities to restrict the use of pesticides used for the cosmetic care of lawn and turf. Toronto has banned pesticide use on private lawns.

The growing pesticide backlash has prompted the industry to lobby against state or local laws regulating the sale or distribution of pesticides. Forty-one states, including Texas, prohibit municipalities from doing so. Nor does Texas have a notification law requiring residents to post signs or tell their neighbors that they are about to or have chemically treated their lawns. Twenty-one states have notification laws and/or offer a registry for people who want to know before a neighbor sprays.

The industry has also blitzed the media with Project EverGreen, a pro-chemical campaign that, according to its website "promotes healthy landscapes and green spaces using public relations and other tactics to tell the positive story of the environmental, economic, and lifestyle values of well-maintained green spaces."

One Project EverGreen ad reads, "We must work together to prevent a repeat of the disaster that occurred in Toronto ..." while a funder of the group told the Scripps Howard News Service in January that "local communities generally do not have the expertise on issues about pesticides to make responsible decisions."

"There is a popular movement today that the general public is starting to crack open the lawn-and-garden industry's persona," says Shawnee Hoover, special projects director for Beyond Pesticides. "It's quite a battleground."

The San Antonio Botanical Garden uses Integrated Pest Management, which relies primarily on least-toxic and natural substances. Not only is IPM environmentally healthier, it is also financially practical. If workers used toxic chemicals, the Garden would have to close for as long as two days before customers - who pay an admission fee - could reenter the area.

Botanical Garden horticulturalist Steve Lowe says some homeowners are reluctant to use IPM because they want to kill a weed or an ant colony instantly. IPM requires patience, but the payoff is a chemical-free lawn. "There are no overnight fixes with IPM," he says. "It's more difficult the organic way."

By Lisa Sorg



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