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Backlash Leads UDelaware to Reconsider Pesticide Posting Policy

Unmarked pesticide spraying at the University of Delaware has many students outraged. (Emily Walton photo)

Students Pushing University to Adopt Organic Protocols

Amidst pressure from student groups to change its policy of spraying synthetic chemical pesticides on campus lawns, the University of Delaware told SafeLawns it would potentially have new protocols in place by next spring.

When an Oct. 9 article appeared in the school newspaper quoting two students who had been affected by the pesticide spraying for weeds — without any warning labels posted — the school responded to a student reporter by stating it only applied safe, approved products. On Thursday, the school still stuck to the product safety claims, but conceded that it would likely begin posting “Keep off the Grass” signs in the future.

“Since the article appeared in The Review and we learned of concerns among our students, we are currently in the process of developing proper signage for the application process,” said John Brennan, the director of public and media relations for the Newark, Del., facility. “As part of this effort, we are reviewing our application policy with the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, as well as benchmarking with peer institutions regarding signage prior to implementation. At this point in the year, the lawn spraying operation has concluded and will not resume until spring, when we should have the signage issue resolved.”

STUDENTS AND PARENTS REVOLT

“It’s a bad feeling, knowing that this is being allowed to happen,” said Ron Miller of Downingtown, Pa., whose daughter, Kate, is a masters candidate at the university. “At the very least, there ought to be signage warning students that those chemicals have been recently applied. If students choose to ignore it, that’s another issue. But they certainly deserve to know if they’re potentially putting themselves at risk by being on the grass.”

His daughter was even more outspoken.

“I was shocked and appalled, not only by the fact that the University is spraying potentially hazardous chemicals on the Green and then allowing students to come into direct contact with them, but also with the administration’s handling of the situation,” she said. “After all, this is an institution of higher learning, where students are expected to question everything and develop the knowledge and drive to improve the world around them. I found it incredibly hypocritical that such an institution (and especially one that claims to be focused on sustainability) would be so reluctant to share information, and it’s downright terrifying that withholding that information to protect their image could come at the expense of human health and well being.”

The university appears to be relying on pesticide products’ approval by the Environmental Protection Agency as ample evidence that they’re safe.

“Please know that the university uses chemicals that are safe when applied as directed, and our grounds services personnel are trained and certified to apply herbicides,” said Brennan in his Thursday memo to SafeLawns.

Yet the Material Safety Data Sheets for the products known to have been applied on campus tell a much different story, as does the EPA itself. EPA product approval is not a finding of general safety, but rather a risk-benefit analysis. In other words, the agency weighs the economic and social benefits against the health and environmental risks that the products may pose; the EPA has sued companies in the past for making safety claims about pesticide products that it has approved.

If pesticide products are deemed to be fully safe by the EPA they are awarded a class “25-B” exemption and are not required to be sold with any warning labels. The EPA requires registered lawn pesticide products sold with varying levels of toxicity to be affixed with either “Caution,” “Warning” or “Danger” and also denoted with a minimum “re-entry period” when people and pets are legally supposed to stay away from sprayed areas.

TO POST, OR NOT TO POST? THE 30-STATE QUESTION

The EPA labels for the two weed-killing products used at the University of Delaware call for humans to stay off recently sprayed areas at least until the products are dry. New York, New Jersey and Maryland would have required that warning signs be posted around areas that were sprayed with either Basagran T/O and PowerZone.

Delaware, and neighboring Pennsylvania, are among 30 states nationwide that do not require companies or individuals to post properties where pesticides have been sprayed on lawns. Fifteen states, including Pennsylvania, maintain pesticide registries that require companies to notify residents prior to a spraying incident — but Delaware is among a majority of states that require no notification whatsoever.

BeyondPesticides.org maintains a database of which states require professionals to post properties after a pesticide spraying has occurred.

“Most states (that have such laws) require that notification signs be posted in a conspicuous point of access to the treated property and left in place for 24 hours,” states a report generated by Beyond Pesticides, a group from Washington, D.C., that advocates nationally for pesticide reduction strategies.

The fact that her university is considering posting the warning signs for areas of campus that have recently been sprayed “is definitely a step in the right direction,” according to Kayla Iuliano, the student-journalist whose Oct. 9 article brought the pesticide issue to public attention. She said, however, that a group known as “Students for the Environment” has larger goals for the campus of 16,000-plus undergraduates, including a petition drive on Change.org.

“The majority of the students’ opinion is that we should get rid of as many of these chemicals as we can. Why do we need them?” said Iuliano. “The signs aren’t really solving the problem. It’s not just students’ health; it’s also the environmental health. Putting signs up isn’t going to alleviate the environmental issues caused by these products.”

The students have been investigating lawn care programs at Harvard, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Arizona at Tucson that have all adopted organic protocols and all but eliminated synthetic chemical pesticides.

“I wish the university would follow its own ‘green’ mantra,” said Andrew Rauluk, a senior biology major from Pittsburgh. “There are greener options out there to maintaining a monoculture.”

WHAT’S GOTTEN INTO US?

For Iuliano, her visual perceptions of workers spraying for weeds doesn’t compute with the university’s safety claims.

“If these chemicals are so safe, then why are the guys in hazmat suits when they apply the stuff?” she said. “The kids who have been breaking out with rashes don’t have grass allergies, but when they sit on the Green at our school it affects them somehow.”

Professor McKay Jenkins questions the toxicity of common household products in his book What’s Gotten into Us? (University of Delaware photo)

Iuliano said she has asked the university for “a full list of the chemicals they’ve been putting down, but so far we have not been given that information.”

She should have every right to that information, and more, according to her professor McKay Jenkins, author of the book titled What’s Gotten Into Us? (Random House, 2011).

“One of the most frustrating things about pesticides, or toxic chemicals of any kind, is that there is so little information being made available to the public,” said Jenkins, a professor of English and director of journalism at UDelaware, where he has won the Excellence in Teaching award. “Whether it is the chemicals being sprayed on a college campus or on your neighbor’s lawn — or the chemicals that you can find in common cosmetics, or cookware, or upholstery — there just isn’t enough information being given to people who need it.”

That, said the professor, is not by accident. Lack of warning labels and tight restrictions on information is part of a culture of deception.

“There is a growing body of evidence that a large number of synthetic chemicals used to make everyday products are carcinogenic, or disruptive to hormones, or toxic to the nervous or reproductive systems,” he said. “The science on this is quite clear.”

 

HIGHER LEARNING

The students ultimately hope their school uses this whole experience for the same reason they came there in the first place: education. When John Brennan tells them “the safety of our students is a key priority for the University of Delaware,” they hope he and the rest of the administration don’t simply take the pesticide industry’s word for it.

“I’m leaving this school in two months having learned so much, but now have more unanswered questions than ever,” said Iuliano. “The school should have the same questions that we do and be willing to share the information.”

Fellow senior Rauluk said he, too, hopes the university strives for better answers.

“I was not personally impacted by the pesticides on the Green, but when I found out that other students were, I was furious,” he said. “Regardless of how ‘safe’ the chemical industry believes pesticides are, students and members of the University community should have the right to know what they are being exposed to. Having taken many biology and biology-related classes, I have some knowledge of the effects of pesticides on the endocrine system, along with a healthy skepticism for the labeling of such pesticides as ‘safe.’”

Jenkins, the proud professor, clearly sees the silver lining within the controversy. “Question Authority,” said the popular collegiate bumper sticker from his undergraduate days. The premise is alive and well at Delaware.

“My students are well aware of this situation, not just as it applies to pesticides on campus, but as it applies to a wide range of products they use every day,” he said. “Teaching about toxic chemicals offers all kinds of opportunities to talk about corporate responsibility, sustainable economics, and environmental and public health.”

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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