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Our kids deserve parks free from persistent pesticides

A jury in San Francisco just ruled that Roundup, a widely used weed killer, was a key cause of a man’s cancer. A few months earlier, a California school groundskeeper was awarded $78 million in damages after a jury determined that Roundup gave him lymphoma.

These cases are just two of many. Thousands of people — mainly cancer patients and family members of those who died — have initiated pesticide-related lawsuits.

These cases add to a growing body of evidence that commonly used pesticides are dangerous. Unfortunately, children are particularly vulnerable to these harmful chemicals. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that about half of the average person’s lifetime pesticide exposure occurs during their first five years.

Controlling weeds and insects shouldn’t take precedence over our children’s health. Local officials and community advocates must lead the way in weaning our nation off these chemicals.

Pesticides can cause severe health problems. They may trigger or worsen asthma, allergies, autism, and ADHD. They have even been linked to nerve and organ problems, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and cancers.

Yet pesticides remain widely used in our playgrounds, parks and ball fields, where children can easily absorb these toxins. As noted pediatrician Philip Landrigan, Director of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital’s Center for Children’s Health and the Environment recently explained, “Children have a larger surface-to-volume ratio and more permeable skin, leading to greater skin absorption of toxic chemicals.”

Children struggle to detoxify and excrete harmful chemicals, as their livers and kidneys are still developing. Children also have faster respiratory rates than adults, so they literally breathe in more pollutants.

Unfortunately, federal regulators have shown little interest in curbing the use of pesticides. Funding for toxic-chemical regulation has been declining. And in 2018, the EPA dismantled the National Center for Environmental Research, which studies the effects of toxic chemicals on kids.

That’s why local leaders must take action.

In Irvine, California, thanks to the leadership of several parents who spearheaded a group now called Non Toxic Neighborhoods, the city passed a historic resolution in 2016 to stop using hazardous chemicals in parks. Now, the city employs organic methods instead.

Also in 2016, South Portland, Maine, passed an ordinance restricting pesticide use on all public and private property. Under the ordinance, only organic pesticides or those classified as “minimum risk” by the EPA are allowed.

In 2017, residents in Naperville, Illinois launched a group — dubbed “Non-Toxic Naperville” — that successfully lobbied officials to eliminate the use of Roundup in city playgrounds. Already, Naperville Park District has moved away from synthetic chemicals in all 73 of its playgrounds — and eight of its 137 parks. Officials plan to monitor soil in these parks and, if all goes well, transition even more acreage to natural fertilizers and herbicides.

Some critics falsely claim that organic methods are ineffective and expensive. In reality, organic management can improve soil quality and boost the health of the turf. It has even proven to cost towns and taxpayers less than conventionally managed fields after the soil is brought back to a healthy state.

More communities should embrace organic land management. The company I co-founded is helping them do so. In collaboration with Non Toxic Neighborhoods, Beyond Pesticides, and Osborne Organics, Stonyfield will invest nearly $1 million to help 35 communities convert their playing fields and parks to organic management over three years. We hope to inspire many other similar initiatives.

Parents have enough to worry about. They shouldn’t have to fret about cancer-causing pesticides at the playground.

Gary Hirshberg is Cofounder and Chief Organic Optimist of Stonyfield Organic.

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