PPS and Herbicides

Photo Caption: Pesticide sign warning on Franklin campus on November 16th, 2019, showing the area was recently/is about to be sprayed. Photo by Erin McCracken Ferro

Franklin has some illustrious lawns, and maintaining them requires a lot of work from groundskeepers. However PPS doesn’t have many groundskeepers to do all that maintenance. In fact there’s only eight full time employees in the PPS grounds department to cover 700+ acres of grounds. Given this, it’s reasonable that sometimes PPS has to make hard choices that still enable them to get the job done. One of these choices is the use of pesticides and herbicides to keep grass looking clean when there are not enough people to hand-care for it. While PPS tries to avoid the usage of these chemicals, sometimes the alternative of bark-dusting isn’t enough to maintain the grounds. When it comes to spraying, PPS makes sure to use EPA (U.S Environmental Protection Agency) approved herbicides as per the PPS and OSU (Oregon State University) IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program. Frank Leavitt, the Senior Manager of Facilities Services and Operations, goes deeper into what this means: “District policy and state law prohibits the use of pesticides that are classified by the EPA as group A, or B carcinogens [the most dangerous carcinogens]. The District’s grounds crew and contractors are licensed to apply pesticides. They receive regular training about approved techniques, and follow the protocols in the District’s IPM program manual and EPA approved label directions for application. Only licensed applicators are permitted, by law, to apply any pesticide on PPS property.” He continues with explaining what herbicides PPS uses: “The following herbicides may be used on PPS properties per the State of Oregon Integrated Pest Manager Plan (IPM): Roundup, used to control broadleaf weeds and grasses, and SpeedZone, used to control broadleaf weeds in turf.”

Despite Roundup being approved by the EPA and the OSU program, it has been in the middle of some controversial cases. In a 2018 New York Times article, “Monsanto Ordered To Pay $289 Million in Roundup Cancer Trial,” Monsanto, the company who manufactures Roundup, was found to be liable in a lawsuit where they were charged with causing a school groundskeeper to get cancer. Following this lawsuit, there were more than 5,000 other lawsuits against them for similar cause. Many of these ended with settlements to the groundskeepers. Nonetheless, many studies still find Roundup to be safe. Why?

The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, which is found in many other herbicides and kills weeds by hindering a particular metabolic pathway. Some studies have shown Roundup to be the cause of diseases (enter the cancer lawsuits), while others show it to be environmentally friendly and safe. The studies that have shown it to be safe may not be accurate though, as there’s a possibility that there are other ingredients in Roundup causing it to be toxic; or a reaction of a mix of an ingredient and glyphosate. According to an article from The Business Insider by Hilary Brueck, The World Health Organization’s International Agency (IARC) says glyphosate is “probably” carcinogenic to humans, based off of a non-partisan committee of 17 experts from 11 different countries’ findings. In contrast, the EPA says that there are no human health risks, but there are potential ecological risks for terrestrial and aquatic plants, birds, and animals. Other various studies also differ in their verdicts. A study in the U.S National Library of Medicine’s website, PubMed.gov, links glyphosate to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that originates in the human immune system. Another study from PubMed.gov with more than 57,000 farmers found no link between glyphosate and lymphoma. Two more recent reviews also found no link to lymphoma, but some of the authors of these reviews had financial ties to Monsanto.

In either case, Roundup is most likely safe once it’s dried; it’s when the spray is wet that it has a higher chance of being potentially dangerous. Depending on the grounds’ needs, PPS may spray 2-3 times a year, and other times they may only spray particular areas. When this happens, PPS only sprays on non-school days, and groundskeepers make sure to stay on campus until it dries to make sure it’s safe to re-enter. While this means students and most staff are in the clear for potential dangers of Roundup, groundskeepers face possible cancerous repercussions from the product. They are the ones doing the spraying and staying near the wet Roundup, similarly to the thousands of groundskeepers who ended up filing lawsuits to Monsanto for giving them cancer.

I talked with Erin McCracken Ferro, one of Franklin’s biology teachers about the situation. When she noticed a sign for pesticides being sprayed on campus, she tried to contact whoever was in charge to learn more about it. She first went to administration, but they said the district was the one to ask. She then emailed and called the district multiple times to get more information. She never got a response to the questions she asked, which were about what pesticides were being sprayed and why. When I contacted the senior manager, Leavitt, I was able to get the answers to a lot of these questions: PPS may spray the herbicides Roundup and SpeedZone to combat weed seeds which were brought in the new soil for the Franklin campus remodel, which have since germinated and spread. Ferro thought it was somewhat concerning that this information wasn’t more readily available, and that when she did contact to learn more she never got responses. I asked Leavitt what they do to contact staff and students about the use of herbicides. He said, “The PPS Grounds department notifies the school principal and office staff 48 hours in advance of any pesticide application, in writing. The school, in turn, posts notification and warning signs 24 hours in advance. This affords any students, staff or public on schools grounds the information about what may be applied and when it will be applied. PPS follows the notification process under state law ORS 634.740.” 

I asked Elizabeth Kirsch, a Franklin English teacher, if she remembered getting an email about this. She found one from July 1st, 2019, which read, “Dear staff, I know that the majority of you are on vacation but I would like to let you all know that the Landscaping crew will be spraying for weeds this weekend and that the grounds will be off limits.” She hasn’t found any other email notices since. However the pesticide notice Ferro found was in November, so Kirsch should have gotten an email notice about that. 

I asked Ferro if there was anything she’d like to add, and she said she wished PPS would be more transparent and communicative about what they’re putting on our campus to students and staff. I also asked Leavitt if there was anything he wanted people to know, and he says, “The Grounds department would like everyone to know that they work diligently to keep our acres of property well kept.  They take pride in their work and would love additional funding to hire additional staff to be able to perform more frequent and detailed work.” 

If you have your own concerns or questions, Leavitt says you can contact Brett Borgeson, the senior manager of environmental health and safety at bborgeson@pps.net or Leavitt himself at fleavitt@pps.net. 

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