When toxic levels of lead were found in the water supply in Flint, Mich., it was a sad reminder we can’t always trust the government to safeguard our health and environment. San Francisco tries to protect our trust with laws like the Sunshine Ordinance and the tech-friendly Open Data Policy, but basic information about San Francisco’s use of toxic materials is still hard to get.
I had to submit a Sunshine Request to the Recreation and Park Department to receive a simple list of fields and playgrounds with toxic recycled tires in the turf. While staff has worked to respond, three weeks later, I still don’t have a complete list I can use to respond to concerned parents’ emails. This information should be available online.
Records of San Francisco’s pesticide use should also be available on The City’s database. But it hasn’t been published yet, and this is a problem as The City conducts its annual review of approved pesticides.
Currently, city departments use glyphosate — the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Round Up — to kill invasive species and comply with San Francisco’s policy to protect biodiversity. But some fear the potentially carcinogenic herbicide could harm kids and pets. In fact, Dr. Victoria Hamman, a San Francisco resident, suspects her dog’s fatal oral cancer was caused by exposure to the toxin.
While signs are supposed to help San Franciscans avoid harmful pesticides, many complain the public notice system doesn’t work because signs don’t indicate exactly where pesticides were applied.
Tom Borden, a local activist, has worked with volunteers to publish pesticide records. They generated a Google map to show approximate locations where glyphosate was applied in 2014 and 2015. The map was an important resource at last Tuesday’s meeting of the Environment Commission’s Policy Committee, but Borden acknowledges it has problems.
“It would be more informative if the marker indicated the actual location of glyphosate use,” he admitted to me. “We just guessed.”
Rupa Bose provided data for the map. Every month, she requests pesticide reports from Rec and Park under the Sunshine Ordinance. Her collection goes back three years.
“As far as I know, there isn’t any other way to get the information at present,” Bose told me.
In addition to not providing specific locations of pesticide applications, the reports don’t provide a complete picture of pesticide use. Bose has seen instances in which contractors did not report pesticide use or renegade private parties sprayed glyphosate in public parks. She also gets the information after-the-fact, so she can’t help members of the public who may have missed signs.
Guillermo Rodriguez at the Department of Environment told me the department wants to improve public notice. They plan to ask applicators to add a blue dye to glyphosate and place flags to mark locations after application. But the department and the public will only know if applicators are complying with these requirements by requesting more after-the-fact and potentially erroneous records.
“The challenge we’re finding is the data is only as good as the folks that give it to us,” Rodriguez said. “We’re still trying to get a better system so we can track more accurate data.”
The lack of interdepartment communication and accurate public records is inexcusable. San Francisco, the land of tech giants and the country’s first open data ordinance, should not have to rely on a persistent public to collect and visualize critical health data. As city leaders celebrate open government and freedom of information this “Sunshine Week,” they should remember our trust needs light to grow.
“Open data helps empower communities and our local government to make data-driven decisions, but the data needs to be truly open to the public to make the strongest impact,” said Supervisor Mark Farrell, the author of San Francisco’s open data ordinance. “Public health data is one of the most important city data sets we have and should be open to the public within reason.”
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.