San Francisco resident Victoria Hamman’s beloved pup Barack died a few weeks ago from a horrific case of oral cancer. The dog was very fond of eating the grass in his local dog park, which is maintained by San Francisco Rec and Park. When she realized that the San Francisco parks department was routinely spraying the grass and surrounding areas with an herbicide called glyphosate (also known as Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’) she wondered if there was a connection between her dog’s cancer and this herbicide. Other residents of San Francisco are wondering the same thing, as it is becoming clear to the public that San Francisco is frequently spraying public parks with this popular herbicide, despite the fact that California’s EPA recently classified glyphosate as cancer-causing, following the World Health Organization’s decision to reclassify glyphosate as a likely carcinogen last March, based on research by the IARC (International Agency For Research on Cancer). So why is a city that touts itself as one of the most environmentally-friendly cities in the world endangering its residents through the use of toxic pesticides?
It’s a question I put to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and various people at the San Francisco Parks department. I haven’t heard from the Mayor’s office, but I did have a chance to speak with Chris Geiger, who heads the San Francisco Integrated Pest Management program – the agency that ultimately regulates / approves pesticide sprayings in San Francisco public parks. Here’s what he had to say about the issue:
At the Dept. of the Environment, we have been tracking the glyphosate issue closely for many years, and the IARC determination prompted a reassessment of herbicide use citywide. We organized a public meeting on the subject July 2 and a series of work meetings with City staff and regional public agencies to chart a path forward. We plan to present our proposed changes at a public hearing in December (date TBA) and to the San Francisco Commission on the Environment for final approval. We are very proud to have reduced overall pesticide use by over 80% on City properties, and intend to continue pushing for the safest alternatives.
Unsurprisingly, San Francisco residents are alarmed to find out that their beloved public parks are being routinely sprayed with cancer-causing chemicals. As a concerned San Francisco resident I personally started a petition on Change.org to try to pressure California lawmakers to ban the use of glyphosate in public parks.
Glyphosate, known commercially as “Roundup” is an herbicide created and patented by Monsanto back in 1970. It is now the world’s most popular herbicide, and is used on everything from mass-produced soybeans and corn to backyard lawns. (Since there seems to be some confusion about the terminology here; “pesticide” versus “herbicide” – I feel like I should clarify. Herbicides are a type of pesticide that kills unwanted plants. There are many different types of pesticides, including fungicides, insecticides, nematicides, herbicides – they are all pesticides.) Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expired in 2000, so now many different companies manufacture glyphosate herbicides under different names.
Major agriculture companies rely on Glyphosate, which is why they’re increasingly turning to Monsanto GMO “Roundup Ready” seeds – seeds that have been genetically modified to be resistant to Roundup. Roundup also very popular with American homeowners, who use it to defend their lawns and yard from weeds, and with city park maintenance crews who see in it a cheap and easy way to keep weeds out of public grounds. Glyphosate’s mechanism of action is to inhibit a plant enzyme involved in the synthesis of the aromatic amino acids: tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine. Because it targets a plant enzyme, for years Monsanto has touted this herbicide to be “harmless to mammals, birds and fish”. That decades-long held assertion is now coming under fire, as the WHO, the IARC and now the state of California have all reviewed the evidence and determined glyphosate to be a carcinogen. And it gets even scarier – glyphosate is not the only chemical in commercial weed killers like Roundup – it is just only the only labelled “active ingredient”. Inactive ingredients that are not listed on the label are proving to be more toxic than glyphosate, meaning the cumulative effect of exposure to the pesticide is probably a lot worse than anyone initially realized. A Canadian study from 2005 confirms this, according to this NIH report.
A recent news clip from local San Francisco television news ABC7 News
Understandably, San Francisco residents don’t want a potentially cancer causing chemical to be sprayed around their public spaces where their children and pets play. San Francisco mom Prachi says:
My child attends Glenridge cooperative nursery school situated in Glen Canyon and we are in the canyon several days a week. We chose this specific school for our child to be close to nature and not close to cancer causing chemicals. This is a harmful for our kids and families. San Francisco needs find another way to deal with pests and weeds. It might be a lengthier process but it is important for our kids & community.
An update on this issue from November 22, 2015
Despite this petition against pesticides in public parks garnering over 11,000 signatures and significant press attention, San Francisco Park and Rec is still spraying pesticides in the public parks, as evidenced by this video shot on November 19th in Mt. Davidson park:
San Francisco resident Carolyn Plakias, whose dog also came down with cancer said: “she got cancer when she was two years old and her vet said it was really unusual to see a mast cell tumor in such a young dog and also in her breed (border collie mix). I’ve met several dog owners in Glen Canyon Park who said their pups have had weird cancers of the nose and mouth.”