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It’s Not Just Roundup — Communities Should Limit All Harmful Pesticides

We should regulate herbicides and related substances comprehensively instead of going after individual chemicals.

We should regulate herbicides and related substances comprehensively instead of going after individual chemicals.

The herbicide Roundup has been a topic of discussion around the U.S. following large jury awards to several people who claim their cancer was caused by long-term exposure to the product. A community listserv I’m on recently included a volley of questions and updated-by-the-second responses among suburban residents about how to address the town’s use of Roundup in parks. Who to contact — mayor? Alders? Parks head? What to say and how — emails, letters, attend a meeting?

Such concerns about Roundup may be warranted. In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, as a probable human carcinogen. Since then, a number of countries have moved to restrict or ban its use, although IARC’s decision has been met with some controversy.

But the main problem with such wranglings is that, in their single-minded focus on one product, they are missing the forest for the trees. This is particularly the case for agencies or organizations that have not yet addressed pesticide use in the context of a broader program or policy.

Strong federal policy to protect communities from harmful pesticides is lacking, so local action is needed. That action, however, should not focus on individual chemicals, which is too narrow and short-sighted an approach. Instead, communities need to focus on regulating all kind of pesticides at the local level. This sounds daunting, until you realize there are blueprints out there from communities already taking such action.

Concerned citizens should provide their local elected representatives with examples of pesticide reduction policies that have been successful elsewhere and ask them to pass and implement such a policy locally. By linking to other laws and chemical classifications, the process of developing a policy is simpler, more efficient, and more protective than a town trying to limit a single pesticide — especially when most municipalities don’t have the level of expertise necessary to wade through and interpret a sea of scientific studies. And the very process of developing a policy gets people learning about chemicals and talking about local priorities.

Data Does Not Equal Policy

U.S. government regulation of pesticides, carried out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a controversial and slow-moving process that can result in the continued use of pesticides that studies have linked with health risks. A current example is the regulatory back-and-forth over chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide that considerable evidence suggests causes cognitive and behavioral problems in children. The title of one scientific article about this issue is, appropriately, “When enough data are not enough to enact policy: The failure to ban chlorpyrifos.”

Numerous pesticides that are in regular use were approved without “enough data” — about their long-term health effects, about the extent to which people are exposed to them, and about the impacts of simultaneous exposure to several chemicals. There are large information gaps. But that doesn’t necessarily stand in the way of federal registration and placement on the market. The system is more reactive than proactive.

Without enough action at the federal level, much pesticide policymaking has moved to the state, local and even school-district levels.

Some states have policies that limit pesticide use on public property. However, most don’t allow local governments to restrict pesticide use on private property. State pre-emption of local policymaking is a growing concern for public health professionals and advocates.

A Local Approach

Meanwhile, local policies can provide a framework that goes beyond just one substance. And since local governments are a smaller unit of government, they may be easier to pass.

As just one example, Evanston, Illinois, just outside of Chicago and home to Northwestern University, passed a policy in 2010 that starts with, in part, a broad statement that the city “seeks to serve as a model to the public for the use of sustainable pest control practices, including natural lawn care and integrated pest management,” or IPM, a well-established protocol that uses commonsense practices to control pests and weeds, with the least toxic pesticide used only as a last resort.

The policy prohibits use on city property of pesticides that are:

  • classified by the EPA as known, probable, likely, possible or suspected carcinogens
  • classified by the EPA for high acute toxicity (toxicity categories I and II); or
  • included on the State of California’s list of substances that cause cancer or reproductive harm — popularly known as the Proposition 65 list.

    Since Roundup is on the Proposition 65 list, it’s banned on city property in Evanston. Similarly, many pesticides containing 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, known as 2,4-D, are designated in the higher acute toxicity categories on their labels — and labeling is a process regulated by the EPA and pesticide labels are considered law — so those are prohibited when they fall into that category. Given that 2,4-D is referred to as toxic by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and has been linked with liver problems and nerve damage, Evanston’s policy provides significant health protection to the city’s residents.

    The current patchwork approach to pesticide regulation is far from ideal. Very protective federal action — that includes taking a precautionary approach where there is uncertainty about health impacts and protecting children through requirements for buffer zones around schools and day care centers — would be best. But these days, the feds more often follow than lead on environmental health issues, so the kind of policy that Evanston developed is a place to start. Local policies should include an overall commitment to sustainable pest control practices. This kind of holistic approach goes beyond a singular focus on one chemical, which lacks proportionality since pesticide use typically goes beyond one product.

    One example to look to is San Francisco’s pest management policy, considered one of the best in the country, and the city provides resources for policymakers. Meanwhile, the EPA provides model policy language for schools. And more information can be found on the websites of organizations like Beyond Pesticides and IPM Institute of North America.

    Communities should use these resources to craft their own holistic policies instead of going after individual chemicals — at least until the federal government prioritizes more substantial protections on a larger scale.

    Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia. We present ​them to further discussion around important topics. ​We encourage you to respond with a comment below, following our commenting guidelines, which can be found on this page. ​In addition, you might consider​ ​submitting a Voices piece of your own. See Ensia’s Contact page for submission guidelines.

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