In 2019, amidst public concerns regarding the most common lawncare chemical — glyphosate, also known as RoundUp — the towns of Waterford, Groton and Chester opted to restrict non-organic applications of pesticides. This policy does not prevent the use of RoundUp on private land however.
The restrictions were adopted after lawsuits in California against RoundUp’s maker, Monsanto, were decided in favor of plaintiffs who claimed exposure to the herbicide caused their cancer.
“The concerns came from a neighborhood in Waterford where there was spraying between the road and the sidewalk curbing,” said Gary Schneider, the new director of Public Works in Waterford. “The neighborhood came to the first selectman to ask if they could stop using the chemical and it became a town-wide change.”
In Groton, where Schneider worked until this year in the Department of Public Works, a similar restriction was similarly adopted.
“In Groton, it came from the town council. They were concerned about the massive use of it,” Schneider said. “Although it was used selectively and we closely monitored its application, it was cost effective, completed in one day just once a year, the council said no to any more use.”
This spring, all 17 towns making up the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments discussed the possibility of a region-wide restriction, according to Sam Gold, executive director of the COG. No decision was reached and no restriction is in place.
As of yet, the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection also has no specific recommendations for the municipal use of pesticides.
“DEEP is not proposing any legislative changes to our pesticide use,” said Robert Isner, the director of the pesticide program at DEEP.
The primary basis for many of the towns adopting an organic approach, is the 2015 declaration by the World Health Organization that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen
The Environmental Protection Agency, disputed the declaration in an April 2019 statement saying: “EPA continues to find that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label and that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.”
Several organizations, including the Sierra Club, have called for the EPA to change its stance and remove glyphosate from the list of safe and regulated herbicides. Sierra Club recommends alternatives which include the application of vinegar, hand and flame weeding.
Prior to 2019, four towns in Connecticut, including Essex, opted to restrict the use of pesticides. In southeastern Connecticut, in addition to Groton and Waterford, Chester put an unofficial restriction on town use of the chemicals in place.
The state currently bans the use of pesticides, which include herbicides, on grounds of daycare facilities and schools enrolling students from kindergarten through 8th grade.
“This ban was put in place because the tolerance of a younger person versus an older person is much lower to potential exposure and the activities that occur at elementary schools such as recess would lead to more opportunities for exposures,” Isner said.
That ban was put in place in 2010, based on “residents’ concerns about children’s health and the environment,” according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Although the statewide ban does not extend to high school playing fields, many high schools, like in Lyme-Old Lyme, share a campus with the middle school. These schools, therefore, are required to maintain sports fields without pesticides as well.
In the past ten years, however, pesticide use on sports fields has become less and less of a concern as more towns transition to artificial turf fields.
“There is no count of how many new turf fields are in the state, but it is absolutely increasing. There are so many turf fields going in everywhere,” said Gregg Simon, the Associate Executive Director for the Connecticut Association of Schools and Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. “This change does reduce pesticide use, but more than that it allows you to play a lot more often on your fields.”
Data shows that young children are particularly vulnerable to environmental toxins, including pesticides. This data does not specifically address the issue of glyphosate exposure, nor do these bans protect protect pregnant women where they work or live, when the fetus is most vulnerable.
In towns with bans, use continues
Despite increasing concern among residents about the use of RoundUp, the State Department of Transportation and Amtrak continue to use RoundUp and other non-organic pesticides along major roads and train lines in all 169 towns in Connecticut.
“Glyphosate binds tightly to soil and is broken down by the bacteria in the soil relatively quickly. It is also low in toxicity to fish and wildlife,” said Kevin Nursick, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. “As far as alternatives, we continue to monitor the marketplace and science in this regard, but to date, there is no effective (or cost effective) alternative to meet our needs.”
In addition, progams by DEEP, the Nature Conservancy and other local efforts to eradicate invasive species continue to rely heavily on pesticides, including RoundUp.
For most, this is still a financial decision, not a health decision, Gold said.
“I think most people can agree that using less chemicals is a good thing, the issue here is dollars and cents,” Gold said. “The reason the Department of Transportation, Amtrak and most public works departments use it is because they think it’s cheaper.”
And it is. Not only in terms of money, but in terms of labor.
Without glyphosate, Schneider said his department must invest more work hours, more days of spraying and therefore more money into keeping the guide rails and signs on the edge of roads clear and safe.
“It brings on a lot of questions. Do you hand trim them? Then what about the workers comp type issues if you hit a bees’ nest, someone falls or get hurt? If you use organic pesticides it requires multiple applications, how many is right?” Schneider said. “It’s not simple. You can’t use a mower and it’s not a one-day thing anymore. That’s why not many towns have gone this way. It’s labor intensive.”