The unseen carcinogenic danger lurking in New York City's public parks
City councilman Ben Kallos wants to end the city’s practice of using the weedkiller Roundup, which has been linked to cancer
Monsanto has been subject to several major civil suits recently over evidence that Roundup may be unsafe. Photograph: Régis Duvignau/Reuters
Parks are New Yorkers’ oasis. They’re where we escape the crowds, the din of traffic, and our often tiny apartments; where we play with our children, walk our pets, and relax in the sun. Parks should be a place where New Yorkers can relax and play without being exposed to dangerous chemicals. So why is a herbicide believed to cause cancer being sprayed in our parks?
The New York City parks department is a prolific user of Roundup, a popular weedkiller sold by Monsanto. Yet research by the World Health Organization has linked the active chemical in Roundup, glyphosate, to cancer – a finding buttressed by several major civil suits recently brought against Monsanto.
You may not hear about the dangers of Roundup from the Trump administration or the various agencies that are supposed to protect the American public from dangerous toxins. Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that there is no risk to public health from glyphosate if it is used in accordance with label instructions. The EPA even went a step further, adding that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.
The problem with this assertion by the EPA – now helmed by a former coal industry lobbyist – is that the evidence Roundup may be unsafe is rapidly mounting. Three recent lawsuits brought against Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company, have resulted in the company paying nearly $3bn to people who have developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after years of using Roundup.
The EPA, ostensibly tasked with “reducing environmental risks based on the best available scientific information”, is at odds with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization. The IARC identified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” in 2015, leading to the chemical being banned in some cities in the United States and many countries around the world.
New York City has 1,700 parks spanning 30,000 acres, most of which are dedicated for public use and the enjoyment of residents, tourists and most importantly children. There are currently no restrictions on the use of glyphosate, and according to the city government’s own data, the Department of Parks & Recreation continues to generously deploy Roundup. In 2017, city workers sprayed over 500 gallons of glyphosate, including in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which receives 8 million visitors a year. And we don’t even know how much glyphosate is used in parks like Central Park, which are managed by private conservancies that haven’t shared the data.
In 2015, kindergarten students at a local public school brought this issue to my attention, and I subsequently introduced legislation banning the use of toxic pesticides in all city parks and open spaces. This year, I worked with health organizations to strengthen the bill, and I’m re-introducing the bill as Introduction 1524. The bill would ban the use of synthetic pesticides classified as known or possible carcinogens by the EPA and IARC. Any land owned or leased by the City of New York, including our parks, would be protected, as would any land within 75 feet of any body of water. Instead, New York City would now use only biological pesticides, which come from naturally occurring substances.
Scientists around the world agree that natural herbicides are better at targeting specific pests and, for that reason, can be used in smaller quantities that break down naturally, faster and more easily.
Proponents of toxic herbicides argue that products like Roundup are needed to kill unsightly weeds in difficult cases where biological pesticides might fail. The problem is that the New York City government has not used Roundup only occasionally. The spraying has been excessive, and it is putting New Yorkers at risk. The city has made some progress in gradually reducing the amount of Roundup it uses, but no amount, anywhere, is acceptable. There are those who would choose to trust Trump’s EPA over the World Health Organization and a growing body of scientific evidence. I am not one of them.
It is time to end this dangerous practice. We should not be drenching our neighborhood parks – let alone playgrounds – in toxic pesticides. I say this as both a member of the city council and a new father. During my time researching this issue I’ve grown increasingly disturbed at the idea of my toddler playing around on the grass in city parks (not least because everything ends up in her mouth).
Thirty years ago, we did not know the risks of glyphosate, so we unknowingly put people at risk. In 2019, however, we have no excuse for continuing to expose our residents to the very real and serious risks that these chemicals present. As Monsanto battles to defend itself against the 11,200 lawsuits that have been filed against it here in the United States, there is no better time for New York City to codify a ban on these toxic chemicals. We owe it to the to municipal employees who have to handle these chemicals as part of their job, to the millions of people who visit our parks every year, and most importantly to our children.
Ben Kallos is a member of the New York City council