We Need to Reduce Toxic Herbicide Use in San Francisco

This note is from Anastasia Glikshtern, an officer of San Francisco Forest Alliance and a long-time San Franciscan.

Why We Need the San Francisco Toxic Herbicides Reduction Act

Most San Francisco residents do not know that the city routinely uses high-toxicity herbicides in parks and on watersheds such as Hetch Hetchy, Crystal Springs, and Alameda.

I was the same. Since 1991 I’d lived less than half a block from the Rockdale entrance to the Mt. Davidson Park and for 9 years had no idea that SF Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) regularly uses toxic herbicides in the park.

At the end of the year 2000 I got a dog. The entrance to Mt. Davidson was so close, Glen Canyon on my way to the Alemany Farmers Market on Saturdays. The dog needed walking. We started walking regularly on Mt. Davidson and in Glen Canyon.

I started seeing the signs – “NOTICE Pesticide Application” – regularly.
The chemical names on the notices were not yet familiar to me – except for Roundup.

At a weeding workshop by SLUG at the San Francisco Garden for the Environment in 1992, the instructor was asked for advice on using Roundup on some difficult-to-eliminate plant. Her answer: “Never even think about using this poison”. She distributed a Glyphosate/Roundup fact sheet – quite a damning one.

When I first called IPM (Integrated Pest Management – the phone number is on the notices) to complain about the spraying, I was told that Roundup is very safe and, because of the way it works, it doesn’t go anywhere.

Today it is everywhere, and it has never been safe.

• In March of 2015 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate (active ingredient of Roundup) as a “probable carcinogen”.
• In July of 2017 glyphosate was added to California’s Proposition 65 list (chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive effects).
• In August 2018, in DeWayne Lee Johnson v. Monsanto Company, a San Francisco jury awarded $289.2 million in damages to a former Benicia School District groundskeeper with terminal non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
• In March 2019, a jury in a federal court in San Francisco unanimously ordered Monsanto to pay roughly $80 million in damages for failing to warn plaintiff Edwin Hardeman of the cancer risks of Roundup herbicide.
• In May 2019, after less than two days of deliberations, a California jury found Monsanto guilty and ordered it to pay over $2 billion in punitive and compensatory damages to a married couple who both developed non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma they say was caused by their many years of using Roundup products.
• The 4th trial started in San Bernardino with opening statements on August 5th 2021: https://usrtk.org/monsanto-roundup-trial-tracker-index/
• More than 100,000 people have filed lawsuits against Monsanto/Bayer claiming that Roundup – and the company lying about its safety – caused their lymphomas.

In 2015, the Annual Public Hearing Regarding Pest Management Activities on City Properties was packed. Most of the attendees were speaking against herbicides in parks. You can read about it here : (https://sfforest.org/2016/01/09/report-on-san-francisco-pesticides-meeting-next-is-jan-11-2016/)

The SFRPD herbicide use noticeably decreased in 2016. Then it started going up again in the following years. In 2020 it’s the highest we have records for. It is particularly bad in the SFRPD’s Natural Resource Division (NRD, formerly NAP).

The IPM boasts of huge percentage reductions in some category of herbicides (Tier I toxicity) or in particular herbicide/active ingredient. (SF Department of the Environment uses a three-tier classification for pesticides, where Tier III is Least Hazardous, Tier II is More Hazardous, and Tier I is Most Hazardous.)

However, it is good to keep in mind that the pesticides are moved from one tier to another (Roundup, which is currently Tier I, was Tier II before 2015), or the same active ingredient suddenly becomes “much safer” with a new inactive ingredient (Vastlan – new for SF – has the same active ingredient as Garlon, but is assigned to Tier II instead of Tier I). You can read about it here.

When asked at one of the Commission on the Environment meetings, to commit to reducing herbicide use, the IPM’s answer was: it is impossible, because they might need any and each of the herbicides on the “Reduced Risk” Pesticide List, and the quantity needed is impossible to predict.

When San Francisco Forest Alliance’s representative spoke about the risks of pesticide use at the 2019 Commission on the Environment meeting she was rebuked by a Commissioner, who said the matter should be left to the experts. If all is to be left to “experts” – why bother with public hearings – or, indeed, an Environment Commission?

The attendance at the pesticide hearings and the Commission on the Environment meetings regarding pesticides have decreased to almost zero, even before Covid restrictions. When writing a letter on the subject, I always think “Why bother? Why waste my time?”

I really want the city to stop spraying Roundup (glyphosate) and other toxic herbicide products. Though Roundup has been the focus recently, that’s only because it is so well-known, well-researched, and widely used. Other herbicides may well be as dangerous (and we know for sure that some are).

Other neighbors of Mt. Davidson, Glen Canyon, Bernal Hill, Bay View Hill, McLaren, Marietta Rocky Outcrop, Pine Lake, Twin Peaks, and many other parks, who walk there frequently, also regularly see notices of pesticide applications, or even the actual sprayings. These are neighborhood parks where families go with children and pets.

Unless there’s a law, there’s no way to reduce the use of toxic herbicides in our parks and watersheds. It just will not happen. Going to the voters is the only way to get it.

The ballot proposition, San Francisco Toxic Herbicides Reduction Act, is ready.
The website, https://stopherbicidessf.org/, has a legal text of the measure among other things. The law would ban the use of all herbicides, except organic and EPA minimum risk, on city property, excluding only SFO’s airfields, and Harding Park Golf Course which is under PGA contract.

It can be done! The claim that managing land without herbicides is impossible isn’t true:
• France banned all use of synthetic pesticides in public spaces in 2017, and banned garden use starting in 2019.
• There is a petition to follow the French example and ban all pesticides in UK gardens and urban areas.
• In Canada 170 cities and towns are pesticide free.
• Right next to us, in Marin, the Marin Municipal Water District has been herbicide free since 2005 (which was formally incorporated in law in 2015). Most towns in Marin County don’t use herbicides at all, and in the Town of Fairfax, a neighbor notification is required prior to the use of pesticides on private property.
• Right next to us, the City of Richmond had completely banned use of herbicides in weed abatement activities by the city or its contractors in 2016.
• In 2000 the Arcata City Council banned the use of pesticides on all properties owned or managed by the city, by unanimous vote. (The city hadn’t actually used them since 1986.) http://www.eastbaypesticidealert.org/Arcata.html
• Non-toxic Irvine, started by parents of kids with cancers, convinced the city of Irvine to switch from regular use of herbicides and toxic fertilizers to eliminating all of them under all circumstances and adopting a completely organic pest-management program. The new program also costs less (even with initial investments in soil augmentation included), and water use was reduced by 30%. https://ocweekly.com/how-irvine-became-socals-first-non-toxic-city-7317638/

Using herbicides is expensive. Pesticides are expensive. They need to be stored in certain way. The applicators need to be certified and supervised. Warning posting is required. Reporting is required.

In 1986 Arcata’s task force cost analysis compared the use of pesticide application to manual vegetation removal and found that increased labor costs were balanced by decreased costs of purchasing, applying, reporting and storing of the pesticides. According to Dan Diemer, Arcata’s Park Superintendent, “From a management perspective it’s actually easier to not use pesticides. The amount of training and paperwork that is required for pesticide use is intense.”

The city of Irvine found that financial benefits come along with ecological and health benefits from eliminating toxic pesticides from landscaping routines.

The parks of San Francisco belong to the people of San Francisco. They have paid to acquire those properties for public use in the past and we are now paying the salaries of those who are managing the parks. The management must not include poisoning of the environment.

[ETA: SFO’s Airfields also excluded from the ballot proposition.]

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