On July 22, the New York State Legislature passed Senate 6502 / Assembly 732-B — a bill that would ban the use of all glyphosate-based herbicides on state properties. The bill now awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature, which would make it law effective December 31, 2021. Beyond Pesticides considers this a hopeful development in the glyphosate “saga” and has urged the governor ought to sign it. Nevertheless, such piecemeal, locality-by-locality initiatives represent mere “drops” of protection in an ocean of toxic chemical pesticides to which the U.S. public is exposed. A far more effective, protective solution is the much-needed transition from chemical-intensive agriculture and other kinds of land management to organic systems that do not use toxic pesticides.
The bill — titled “An Act to amend the environmental conservation law, in relation to prohibiting the use of glyphosate on state property” — was introduced in 2019 and sponsored by New York State Assembly Member Linda B. Rosenthal (D/WF-New York) and State Senator José Serrano. It would add a new subdivision to section 12 of the state’s environmental conservation law, proscribing “any state department, agency, public benefit corporation or any pesticide applicator employed thereby as a contractor or subcontractor to apply glyphosate on state property.” More than 50,000 gallons of glyphosate-based herbicides were applied in public spaces across the entirety of the state, as reported in 2019 by Bronx.com.
Senator Serrano said of the bill, “Our parks, playgrounds and picnic areas are an oasis for New Yorkers, and have particularly become safe havens during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important that we protect the health and safety of workers, families, and pets by proactively eliminating the use of potentially harmful chemicals like glyphosate in our public spaces, and by finding safe alternatives that will not risk the health of New Yorkers and our environment.”
Assembly Member Rosenthal commented: “Weeds are unsightly, but cancer is a killer, and we should not wait for a child or anyone to become sick to take action to protect them against a serious potential risk. Parents don’t want their children exposed to dangerous, toxic chemicals when they play in state parks, and groundskeepers and farm workers should not be exposed to potentially deadly chemicals while doing their job. Prohibiting the use of glyphosate on State property makes good sense: doing so will protect the public health and environment while shielding the State from millions of dollars in potential liability associated with its use. With safer alternatives available, there is no reason the State should be using a potential carcinogen to kill weeds.”
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide RoundupTM, Monsanto’s (now Bayer’s) ubiquitous and widely used weed killer; it is very commonly used with Monsanto’s companion seeds for a variety of staple crops (e.g., soybeans, cotton, corn, canola, and others). These glyphosate-tolerant seeds are genetically engineered to be glyphosate tolerant; growers apply the herbicide and expect that it will kill weeds and not harm the crop. Roundup has been marketed as effective and safe, but, in reality, its use delivers human and ecosystem harms. Exposures to it threaten human health (including transgenerational impacts) and the health of numerous organisms. In addition, many target plants are developing resistance to the compound, making it increasingly ineffective as a weed killer, and resulting in ever-more-intensive pesticide use. Glyphosate was classified in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a probable human carcinogen.
Because children spend ample time in and on the kinds of turf that are often treated with glyphosate, and are more likely than adults to inhale, or ingest, or incur other kinds of exposures from grass and soil, Beyond Pesticides and many experts are very concerned about the use of this toxic chemical on such sites. Indeed, a study by the Center for Environmental Health found that children carry significantly higher levels of glyphosate in their bodies than do their parents.
Legislative and regulatory moves on the parts of states, counties, cities, and towns, like this bill in New York State: (1) happen in the context of, and in part because of, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) abdication of its protective responsibility to the public; (2) are often successfully challenged on the grounds that “higher level” pre-emption supersedes local laws and regulations; and (3) tackle the problem one chemical compound in one locality at a time — an approach that Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman has called “whack-a-mole.”
In addition, federal pesticide regulations in the Trump era have intentionally been made less robust and narrower in scope, and enforcement even of those has been anemic. That said, for decades, EPA has for decades aimed to “mitigate” risks rather than exercise the principle of Precaution in rulemaking. In July 2020, Beyond Pesticides described “the folly of the federal regulatory system’s attempts to ‘mitigate’ risks of pesticide exposure through small and piecemeal rules. Given the many thousands of chemical pesticides on the market, the complexity of trying to ensure ‘relative’ safety from them (especially considering potential synergistic interactions, as well as interactions with genetic and ‘lifestyle’ factors), and the heaps of cash that fund corporate interests . . . via lobbyists and trade associations, there is one conclusion. ‘Mitigation’ of pesticide risks is a nibble around the edges of a pervasive poison problem.” All of these failings have been made worse by an administration devoted to reducing or eliminating regulation on corporate actors.
There is no guarantee that Governor Cuomo will sign Senate 6502 / Assembly 732-B into law; in early 2020, he vetoed legislation to ban chlorpyrifos, and instead issued an immediate ban on aerial application, and proposed a regulatory phase-out to ban all uses by 2021. As the chief executive official of the state, he could — In addition to signing bills that come from the Legislature — take executive action to, for example, ban use of the most dangerous pesticides. Beyond Pesticides believes that the governor is not living up to his responsibility to protect the safety and well-being of New York State residents and environment from the dangers of chemical pesticides.
Beyond Pesticides reported on a bill for a local law proposed in 2019 in New York City Council (Intro 1524) that would prohibit city agencies from applying any chemically based pesticide to any property owned or leased by the City of New York. In 2019, Bronx.com reports, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation used upward of 500 gallons of glyphosate on 28,000+ acres of parks, playgrounds, beaches, athletic fields, recreational facilities, and other sites to “control” weeds. In its January 2020 hearing before the council’s Committee on Health, the bill was ultimately “laid over by committee” — a term that can mean a bill will be taken up the next legislative day, but which also can be a euphemism for “how a bill gets killed by ignoring it.”
In covering that bill, Beyond Pesticides wrote about the context in which New York City and other localities have increasingly turned to local action: “The issue is made more urgent, for New York City and for many, many municipalities and states, because most environmental regulation below the federal level in the U.S relies heavily on the determinations of EPA. Under the Trump administration, federal environmental regulation generally, and regulation of pesticides, in particular, have been dramatically weakened; this administration and its EPA clearly advantage agrochemical and other industry interests over the health of people and ecosystems. The consequent loss of public trust in federal agencies broadly, and EPA in particular, reinforce the need for localities to step up and protect local and regional residents and environments.” Currently, the bill is being held up by the Speaker’s office.
Along with the bill banning use of glyphosate on state property, the New York State Legislature passed S.5579a / A.5169, which, when signed, will mandate that written notices and signs informing the public of pesticide use in commercial and residential settings be printed in English, Spanish, and any other locally relevant languages. Senator Serrano commented, “It’s critical that all New Yorkers are aware of any warnings regarding pesticide use and application in their neighborhoods. . . . [This bill will ensure] that every resident can be adequately informed of pesticide use in their communities and take steps to ensure the health and safety of their loved ones.”
In light of the increasing evidence of the harm glyphosate can cause, some countries have stepped up restrictions or instituted bans on use of the compound, including Italy, Germany, France, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bermuda, Fiji, Luxembourg, and Austria. A growing number of jurisdictions in some countries have taken similar actions. In the U.S., counties, towns, and cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Miami, and many others in California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Washington State, and more, have banned glyphosate applications on public lands.
Beyond Pesticides urges a federal ban on the use of glyphosate herbicides, and supports interim efforts of localities to protect their own communities — and those who work directly with these chemical — as New York State is beginning to do through this bill (S.6502 / A.732-B) that would prohibit glyphosate use on all state properties. It is unfortunate that, if signed, the law would not go into effect until the very last day of 2021, but Governor Cuomo should nevertheless immediately sign the bill into law.
The solution to the current federal “whack-a-mole” approach to mitigating the impacts of glyphosate (and all pesticide) use is a wholesale transition away from the chemical dousing of public lands, agricultural fields, and all manner of maintained turf. Organic approaches to pest and weed problems in agriculture and on other lands and landscapes (and in homes, gardens, buildings, et al.) do not involve toxic pesticides, and avoid the health and ecological damage they cause.
In addition to being genuinely protective of human health, organic management systems support biodiversity, improve soil health, sequester carbon (which helps mitigate the climate crisis), and safeguard surface- and groundwater quality. Beyond Pesticides encourages the public to contact federal, state, and local officials to demand real protection from toxic pesticides, perhaps beginning with a ban on the use of glyphosate on public lands, as New York is attempting to do. Find contact information for federal Representatives here, and for Senators here. Contact information for states and localities is typically available on state and city/town websites.