Death to dandelions 

Are herbicides worth the risk in public parks?

What’s worse: bee stings, weed pollen allergies and slippery playing fields, or chemical herbicides that—according to the Journal of Pesticide Reform—contain ingredients linked to respiratory problems, cancer and genetic mutations? That’s the question facing Missoula’s mayor and Parks and Recreation officials as the city’s turf becomes increasingly inundated with broadleaf weeds. But Missoula resident Jerry Black thinks the answer is a no-brainer: “Why would we endanger our health and ecosystems just to get rid of dandelions?” says the accidental anti-herbicide crusader.

Black, a retired airline pilot from Seattle who moved to Missoula in 2003 to be closer to family, says he never set out to be an activist. But when he noticed his Rattlesnake Valley neighbors spraying their lawns with hefty doses of pesticides and herbicides, he became alarmed.

“You just don’t see that kind of thing in Seattle,” Black says. “Even though it’s a huge city, people there are more aware of the dangers of spraying that stuff on their lawns.”

Concerned for the health of his neighbors, his family and nearby Rattlesnake Creek—the primary spawning ground for bull and cutthroat trout in the Clark Fork below the Milltown dam—Black set out on a campaign to educate Missoulians about the dangers of lawn chemicals. Last summer he began distributing free pesticide information near Missoula’s farmers’ market, along with “Poison Free Yard” signs, which he sold for $3.50 (without a stick) and $4 (with stick). Black says he’s sold more than 350.

But Black says he was startled to learn this spring that for the first time in at least 16 years, city officials hired local contractors to apply herbicides in 33 city parks.

Earlier this month Black wrote a letter to Missoula Mayor John Engen expressing his concern about the herbicide application. Black says he wants Engen to consider the dangers herbicides and pesticides pose to people and ecosystems and reconsider the city’s position on their use.

“I want the mayor to give me written assurance that the pesticides and herbicides being used on the city’s parks don’t create a health hazard for me, my grandkids or my pets,” he says.

Engen says he hears often from “folks on either side of the herbicide question,” and says the city’s general preference is to not use chemical herbicides. At the same time, Engen says, there are plenty of residents who also don’t want weed seeds from neighboring parks drifting into their neatly manicured lawns.

“I appreciate Jerry’s concerns, and we have lots of folks who have shared similar concerns,” Engen says. “Our job is to always try to find a balance so we can take care of the community assets given our limited resources. [Herbicide application] is one of the ways we do that.”

Missoula Parks and Recreation director Donna Gaukler says herbicides are at the “bottom of the toolbox” when it comes to controlling broadleaf weeds like dandelions on city property. First, Gaukler says, parks crews use more eco-friendly methods such as aeration of the soil, meticulously applied fertilizer and nutrients, and fine-tuned irrigation systems that ensure optimal conditions for turf grass growth. But those methods take time and a considerable amount of manpower, which can cost a lot more than the occasional herbicide application. According to Gaukler, the city hasn’t broadly employed application of herbicides since she joined Parks and Recreation in 1991. But this year, after receiving a “huge number of complaints,” the department spent about $13,000 to combat weeds she says had taken over 30- to 60-percent of the turf in some local parks.

One of the loudest complaints came from the Missoula Softball Association (MSA). Chandi Mehr, MSA softball coordinator, wrote to Parks and Recreation in March urging the department do something about the weeds on playing fields, citing players’ “health and safety” concerns. According to Mehr, “Many players’ allergies could become affected due to the dandelions and associated weed pollen.”

But Black, who has spent a good chunk of time over the past year researching herbicides, say such considerations are irrelevant in the face of the dangers posed to humans, pets and trout habitat by chemicals such as Trimec (the herbicide Missoula uses to control weeds in city parks). According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, there’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest that the chemical cocktail in Trimec (which includes 2,4-D, one of two chemicals in Agent Orange) is hazardous to human health. According to the National Cancer Institute, dogs whose owners use herbicides containing 2,4-D are up to twice as likely to develop lymphatic cancer.

Quoting a Canadian physician who wrote about the issue in the Toronto Star, Black says: “What defies common sense is the notion that we should use chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and neurological illness to destroy dandelions.”

For his part, Engen says he’s not sure if written assurance of the safety of the city’s herbicide application program will be forthcoming.

“I’d have to look over all the material and have a conversation with the city attorney, but there is very little in this world that I can guarantee,” Engen says.

In the meantime, Black says, he intends to continue his campaign until the Garden City is free of herbicides and pesticides. He’d rather the city spend extra money to keep dandelions at bay without poisons, or ignore them altogether.

“I don’t want my grandson exposed to this stuff,” he says. “That’s the point I’m trying to make.”
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