New York City Council Passes Landmark Law Eliminating the Use of Toxic Pesticides in City Parks and Playgrounds

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The New York City Council celebrated Earth Day by passing legislation prohibiting toxic pesticides in parks and playgrounds. The new law abolishes the use of harmful pesticides, like glyphosate/Roundup, codifying a ban on pesticides with an allowance for only those permitted under federal organic standards.

The hard-earned victory by Council Member Ben Kallos first introduced the bill, which 31 other Council Members sponsored, back in 2015, so the bill’s passing on Earth Day is more than just symbolic.

Pesticide-Free Land Practices

At a press conference earlier today at the Stanley Isaacs Playground on East 96th Street and 1st Avenue, just before the council voted unanimously, Kallos stood with the Council Speaker, the Black community and think tank leaders and environmental advocates to say that the bill bans all city agencies from spraying highly toxic pesticides such as glyphosate.

Noting that this was the most far-reaching legislation to implement pesticide-free land practices in New York City Parks and public spaces, Kallos said: 

“Parks should be for playing, not pesticides. All families should be able to enjoy our city parks without having to worry that they are being exposed to toxic pesticides that could give them and their families’ cancer […] as a new parent my daughter isn’t allowed to play on the grass, especially because as a baby puts everything in her mouth. I look forward to working with all of our city agencies to ban toxic pesticides and keep our children safe.”

Approach to Pesticide Reform

In its report, Poison Parks, The Black Institute, points out the disproportionate harm to people of color neighborhoods in New York City and documents that the city landscapers who handle dangerous pesticides are almost all black and brown people. Ms. Lewis pointed out that this disproportionate harm is a classic example of environmental racism.

According to Beyond Pesticides, the approach to land care specified by Intro 1524 identifies an allowed substance list (National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances under federal organic law) to ensure that the products and practices used are compatible with the organic systems that protect people and local ecology, including the waterways that surround New York City. “It is this approach to pesticide reform that will effectively stop the unnecessary use of hazardous pesticides applied in parks and public spaces throughout the city,” said Mr. Feldman.

While addressing urgent local concerns related to public health and the environment, the passage of this law in New York City makes a vital contribution to confronting the climate and the escalating biodiversity crises, including pollinator declines. Petroleum-based, synthetic pesticides release carbon into the environment due to their manufacture and use, and their application to landscapes results in the lost opportunity to sequester atmospheric carbon in organic soil systems.

Toxic Effect on Human Cells

Used in yards, farms and parks throughout the world, Roundup has long been a top-selling weed killer. But now, researchers have found that one of Roundup’s inert ingredients can kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

The latest study findings intensify a debate about so-called “inerts” — the solvents, preservatives, surfactants and other substances that manufacturers add to pesticides. Nearly 4,000 inert ingredients are approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, is the most widely used herbicide in the United States. About 100 million pounds are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year, according to the EPA.

Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

Interfering With Hormone Production

One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call “astonishing.” study authors from France’s University of Caen said:

“This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert […] moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens.”

The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.

Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer, contends that the methods used in the study don’t reflect realistic conditions and that their product, which has been sold since the 1970s, is safe when used as directed. Hundreds of researches over the past 35 years have addressed the safety of glyphosate.

Monsanto, the company that marketed glyphosate as Roundup and which has since been acquired by Bayer, was ordered to pay $78 million by a San Francisco court to Dewayne Johnson, a former school groundskeeper. The latter is terminally ill with cancer that a jury determined was caused in part by the use of Roundup. In a second lawsuit, in March of 2019, a jury ordered Bayer to pay $80 million to Edwin Hardeman, whose cancer was determined to have been caused, in part, by the use of Roundup on his property.

Substances Known To Cause Cancer

The proposed legislation would move city agencies to use biological pesticides, which are derived from naturally occurring substances instead of synthetic substances. There is a general acceptance that natural pesticides are usually inherently less toxic than their conventional counterparts and are often more effective at targeting a specific pest. Biological pesticides can also be used in smaller quantities and break down more rapidly in the environment.

Council Member Kallos first introduced legislation to limit the use of damaging pesticides in City parks in 2015 after hearing from the students at P.S. 290, who expressed concerns over the toxicity and health effects on humans and animals. Since that original bill was introduced, glyphosate has been banned or limited in many jurisdictions worldwide, including Brazil, France, Netherlands, and Portugal. In 2017, the state of California added glyphosate to its official list of chemicals and substances known to cause cancer.