Why Alternatives To Herbicides Should Be Used, On Earth Day and Everyday
A response to a weed manager

Jay Feldman

It is often the case that those who use pesticides use them with the belief
that they are safe because they are registered by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency and the state in which these toxic chemicals are used.
However, when public officials who coordinate weed management programs
profess this safety myth about pesticides they strike a blow to public trust
and understanding of the real risks, known and unknown, of chemicals that
happen to be in wide use and result in widespread human and environmental

The Boulder County, Colorado Weed Manager committed this violation of public
trust when she wrote in the summer issue of the Boulder County Parks and
Open Space publication Images, "Why I Sprayed Herbicides on Earth Day. . ,"
and seriously misled the public on critical questions of public and
environmental safety. Here Cindy Owsley, in defense of pesticide use, is
misinformed, and, as a result misinforms. 

In fact, investigation after investigation, which should be known to a
public official of Ms. Owsley stature, say quite the opposite. Of the 18
most commonly used herbicides (herbicides are weed killers, a large and
growing part of the family of pesticides), seven are cancer causing, six
cause birth defects, six cause reproductive effects, eight are neurotoxic, 9
damaging to the kidney and liver, and 14 are irritants, according to EPA and
National Institutes for Health data. And that's just health effects. When
considering environmental effects, such as ability to contaminate
groundwater and toxicity to fish, bees and birds, the majority are culprits.  

Even worse, we do not know what we should about the pesticides to be taking
the kind of cavalier attitude espoused by Ms. Owsley. The U.S. General
Accounting Office (GAO) found in its 1990 report, Lawn Care Pesticides:
Risks Remain Uncertain While Prohibited Safety Claims Continue, that the
public is mislead on questions of pesticide safety. While nine years have
passed since this finding, not much has changed. The majority of weed
killers used by the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Department have not
been fully tested in accordance with modern safety standards. Moreover, the
EPA has stated clearly that numerous tests have are not even performed as
part of the pesticide registration that should be --tests for endocrine
disrupting effects (impacts of these chemicals on fetal development, sexual
traits and cancer later in life) and impacts on children generally. In
addition, pesticides are not currently tested in mixtures with other
chemicals for their additive, cumulative or synergistic effects. 

The majority of pesticide formulations, whose uses are advocated by Ms.
Owsley, are comprised of so-called "inert" ingredients that are often more
toxic than the parent compound and not disclosed on the product label. They
have been protected as trade secret information. Neither Ms. Owsley nor the
public generally can fully identify what solvents, mixing agents, or
adjuvants are contained in the products used. 

In its report, GAO said, "The lawn care pesticides industry [which uses the
chemicals we are talking about here] is making claims that its products are
safe or nontoxic. GAO's review found nine instances of safety claims, such
as "completely safe for humans," made by manufacturers, distributors, and
professional applicators. EPA, using its standards for pesticide labels,
considers that these claims, when made by manufacturers and distributors,
are false and misleading." More recently, New York State last year reached a
settlement with Monsanto requiring the company to cease its misleading
advertising campaign. In that case, New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco,
called Monsanto's ad campaign "particularly troubling," and forced the
company to remove certain "health and environmental claims, similar to Ms.
Owsley. Monsanto claimed that Roundup, which contains the active ingredient
glyphosate, is "safer than table salt," and that Roundup "can be used where
kids and pets play, and breaks down into natural material," despite the
warning label which clearly states environmental hazards. Sound familiar?

Ms. Owsley is making a value judgement, devoid of scientific fact, when she
so glibly advocates pesticide use. Her value is that it is O.K. to spray
poisons knowing that there are risks and incomplete information on the full
range of hazards to people, including children, and the environment, now and
in the future.  In describing the federal law, a former pesticide
registration division director at EPA said in an affidavit that an EPA
pesticide registration "does not constitute a finding of a pesticide's
safety. To the contrary, the fact of registration only means that EPA has
found the risks of use of a pesticide to be outweighed by the benefits of
the pesticide's use." With incomplete information, and like most pest
managers who ignore the fact that EPA has not evaluated the benefits of
pesticides in light of less toxic alternatives or approaches for which we
have full safety information, Ms. Owsley is playing with our health and
environmental safety.

Let 's get the truth out and have an informed community debate about the
health of families, children and the environment, rather than belittle the
meaning, importance and legacy of Earth Day. Maybe then, as a community and
as pest managers, we would decide to adopt the nonchemical option that has
worked successfully time and time again.

Jay Feldman is the executive director of the National Coalition Against the
Misuse of Pesticides, a national organization of urban, rural and farm
people and organizations that provides the public with information on the
adverse human health and environmental effects of pesticides and promotes
pest management approaches that are not reliant on pesticides.  He can be
reached at 701 E Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003, 202-543-5450, email:

National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides
701 E Street, SE #200
Washington, DC 20003
ph 202-543-5450
Fax 202-543-4791