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SF debates continued use of pesticides to kill vegetation, rats

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Herbicides are used at trails inside McLaren Park in the Excelsior, seen above, to protect native species from the weed Oxalis pescapre. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

“Pesticides are scary.”

That’s how Chris Geiger, the Department of the Environment’s toxics reduction coordinator, described at a recent meeting the poisonous substances The City uses to kill rats and unwanted vegetation.

The meeting, an annual affair, was a prelude to the vote the Commission on the Environment will take early next year on whether to approve the proposed updated list of allowable pesticide products. The products are categorized in three groups by their health risks, with Tier 1 being the most hazardous. The proposal also includes new conditions by which city departments can use the chemicals.

Departments can also apply for exemptions to use products in ways that do not meet the set conditions or to use other products not on the list, such as when they want to experiment with less harmful alternatives.

“This is heavily managed,” Geiger said of The City’s pesticide use. “Every year, we have a process where we sit down with all the various departments and go through each product one by one and ask, ‘Is it necessary? Is there a safer alternative? Is it working?’”

Geiger said The City is working to reduce use.

All herbicides used by city departments decreased from 1,309 pounds of active ingredients in 2012 to 835 pounds in 2016, according to data Geiger posted online. For the most hazardous herbicides — those mostly containing glyphosate — usage has declined from 1,250 pounds in 2010 to 144 pounds in 2016, according to data from the department.

Scary, pesticides may be. But some attendees of the Dec. 20 meeting argued pesticides are an unnecessary evil.

Among them were members of the Forest Alliance and Eric Brooks, a San Francisco Green Party representative and leader of Our City, an advocacy group focused on environmental issues.

Brooks said The City should stop using herbicides altogether. To that end, he is recommending that no pesticides go on the allowable-use list, meaning any department that wants to use them would have to apply for an exemption. He would also want the public to have a chance to weigh in on the application as well.

“That way, you’re having to file an application to really prove there’s a good reason for public health and safety that you need to use this,” Brooks said.

Brooks suggested to the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday that a ballot measure may ultimately be needed, possibly in November 2020, to get The City to stop using pesticides, which was the intent of a 1996 ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors. That ordinance, however, was subsequently watered down and has led to continued usage.

San Francisco’s pesticide use garnered renewed attention about two years ago after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said the chemical glyphosate -— which is a main ingredient in the popular Monsanto weed killer Roundup -— is probably carcinogenic for humans.

The City reacted by reclassifying glyphosate-containing pesticides as among the most hazardous, or a Tier 1 product.

“We had a long series of meetings with other agencies over the past two years to find safer alternatives,” Geiger said. “The problem with phasing out Roundup quickly is that in every respect — other than the cancer-causing rating that it has from the WHO — it is safer than most of the other products available that would do the same thing.”

There is also renewed focus on herbicide use given the Recreation and Park Department’s new Natural Areas management plan to foster biodiversity.

That type of management was illustrated through one exemption the department was granted this year to use the Tier 1 herbicide garlon 4 ultra to eradicate the Oxalis pes-caprae within 15 feet of designated trails at Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson, McLaren Park, Bayview Hill and Corona Heights. The chemical use was granted to protect native plant species “from this invasive weed.” The exemption was needed since pesticide use conditions don’t allow chemicals within 15 feet of public trails.

Rec and Park spokesperson Connie Chan said Thursday there is a team of five employees who oversee pest management “based on the best scientific data available.”

She added, “We strongly support the Department of the Environment to conduct public outreach and educate our community about the science behind our pest management methods including the pesticides that we
use.”

Pesticide usage citywide fluctuates, but overall shows a downward trend. Rec and Park in the first quarter of 2017 used 4.3 pounds of pesticides in natural areas, 5.7 pounds on golf courses and 3.2 pounds in parks and facilities, according to Geiger’s posted data. In total, The City used 203 pounds of pesticides in the first quarter of 2017.

Tom Borden, a local activist and member of the Forest Alliance, argued that The City needs to track “the long-term efficacy of these herbicide treatments.” He said if The City will have to regularly apply herbicide treatments each year to maintain the areas, then it isn’t worth it. 

Added safeguards for use of herbicides are also being proposed. There is a current restriction on use of Tier 1 herbicides on blackberry plants when fruits are present, but that is being broadened to prohibit all herbicides on plants with any kind of edible berry present. Some wanted a similar ban for all edible vegetation.

The current restrictions require blue dye to mark the areas where the most hazardous herbicides were sprayed, but The City is proposing to require the dye for all herbicides sprayed.

Herbicides cannot be used “for purely cosmetic purposes” or within 15 feet of schools, preschools, playgrounds or other areas frequented by children, under the current rules.

New products are also being proposed to add to the permitted pesticide list, such as boric acid in ant baits, although Brooks opposed that. He said there were non-toxic methods to combat ants.

Another addition is dry ice to kill rats, which is seen as an alternative to more hazardous poisons. The product was used previously as a pilot in San Francisco to kill rats around Portsmouth Square in Chinatown. Other major cities have used it in recent years, but it was discontinued under orders by the Environmental Protection Agency since it wasn’t registered for rat control. Bell Laboratories has since registered a dry ice product with the EPA as a pesticide, and it is coming back into use. The dry ice is basically jammed into rat burrows, and the rodents end up suffocating on the released carbon dioxide. 

“This year, in particular, was a very big year for rats,” said Luis Agurto, Jr., president of the city-contracted pest control company Pestec. “This might have to do with construction and just a higher population in The City — all contributors to this burgeoning rodent problem.”

It apparently was also a year for big rats. “We just had a problem-solving session out at UN Plaza and some of the rats were too big to fit in the bait boxes,” Geiger said. “They were so well fed.”

San Francisco’s Commission on the Environment Policy Committee will hold a public hearing on the herbicide usage Jan. 8, and is expected to hold a subsequent hearing before the full commission takes it up. 

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