The Black Institute Shows Higher Pesticide Use in Low-Income Neighborhoods in New York City, Calls for Pesticide Ban in Parks
Toxic pesticide use in New York City (NYC) parks would get the boot if a bill — Intro 1524 — being considered by the New York City Council passes. The bill “would ban all city agencies from spraying highly toxic pesticides, such as glyphosate (Roundup), and be the most far-reaching legislation to implement pesticide-free land practices in New York City parks,” according to a press release from its sponsors, New York City Council members Ben Kallos and Carlina Rivera. The January 29 hearing on the bill in the council’s Committee on Health was preceded by release of an important report from The Black Institute: Poison Parks, which calls out the NYC Parks Department for, in particular, its continued use of glyphosate-based herbicides. It also notes, “Minority and low-income communities suffer from the use of this chemical and have become victims of environmental racism.”
NYC Council members Kallos and Rivera point out, in their joint press release, that glyphosate is the pesticide most intensively used by city agencies, and that, “The use of this pesticide poses a health risk for anyone who frequents city parks and playgrounds, as well as, city workers, including city parks employees who come into contact with glyphosate containing chemicals while spraying.” Council member Rivera said: “Our parks and open spaces are critical to our health when our communities have so few of them, so we have to make sure our city is pushing toward making them safer, greener, and more resilient. But no New Yorker should ever have to be exposed to toxic pesticides and it is long past time that our city ban these dangerous chemicals.” Member Kallos added, “Parks should be for playing, not pesticides. All families should be able to enjoy our city parks without having to worry that they are being exposed to toxic pesticides that could give them and their families cancer.”
The Poison Parks report puts its advocacy of nonchemical management of public land in an environmental justice, as well as a public health, context. It defines environmental racism as racial discrimination in: environmental policy-making; the enforcement of regulation and laws; the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and the siting of polluting industries; the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in communities of color; and the history of excluding people of color from mainstream environmental groups, decision-making boards, commission[s], and regulatory bodies. It also says that the Environmental Justice movement “has failed to address large-scale environmental practices, funded by big business, [that] disproportionately affect communities of color.”
The report includes data and maps that demonstrate the impacts of such environmental racism, including this from 2017–2018: “In Manhattan, Harlem was disproportionately sprayed in comparison with the rest of Manhattan. When analyzing this data, only locations that included parks, playgrounds, or recreation centers on park land were considered. Of the fifty parks or playgrounds sprayed in Manhattan in 2018, only 8 locations were not in Harlem. Forty-two locations were in Harlem where about 62% of the population is Black or Brown.” (Manhattan boasts more than 100 city parks.)
The Black Institute President Bertha Lewis said, in comments to the New York Daily News, “We understand the movement about climate and pollution going on. Too many times, the effect on black people and brown people and people of color is an afterthought.” The Bronx Chronicle also quotes Ms. Lewis: “Millions of New Yorkers rely on our public parks. Children, seniors, working people, immigrants, and their pets use them every day, but most don’t know the weed killer Roundup™ used in our parks is literally poisoning them. As our report shows, the neighborhoods affected are black and brown communities, such as Idlewild Park in Queens, where 90% of the residents are black. Average New Yorkers can’t just go to a park upstate or [on] Long Island to enjoy the outdoors. Public parks are the backyard for most New York City residents. We have banned plastic bags, we have banned trucks idling, and we have banned Styrofoam™. It is high time we ban the weed killer Roundup™.”
In the Executive Summary, the report cites the long-standing use of Roundup (made by Monsanto, now owned by Bayer AG) by the New York City Parks Department, and says, “Glyphosate is slowly poisoning state and city employees, children, the elderly, and pets,” adding that city employees who apply the herbicide are at the greatest risk of harm because of their consistent exposure. The report further decries NYC agencies’ argument that glyphosate herbicides such as Roundup cause no harm because they are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Poison Parks correctly notes that EPA permits toxic pesticides to remain registered (allowed for use) and on the market for years and years because its protocol is to review registrations only every 15 years. Roundup has been on the market since 1974. Its effects had “not been studied since 1993,” according to Poison Parks, which also says that in a 2018 review, EPA repeatedly found “something biased or inadequate in each case reporting a positive correlation between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and exposure to glyphosate. At the same time, any report with findings supporting that glyphosate does not cause cancer faced far less scrutiny.”
The report advocates for laws — “below” the federal level, given the state of EPA — that ban the use of glyphosate: “There are safe and healthy methods of reducing weeds without the use of toxic chemicals that threaten [New York] City’s most vulnerable. . . . Parks and recreation areas are timeless community magnets. They provide a place of relaxation and connection to others: a place for children to play, our pets to be free, and opportunity to escape the grind of city life, and need to be protected.” Poison Parks calls on New York City to:
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.
The bill, which was first proposed in 2015 after Member Kallos heard from students at NYC Public School 290 about their worries about the toxicity and health impacts of pesticides on people and animals, would also establish a 75-foot protective buffer between any natural body of water and permitted pesticide use. On January 29, bill sponsors Kallos and Rivera, and 34 NYC Council colleagues sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, requesting that he put a moratorium on the use of toxic pesticides “until policies and procedures can be codified by the City Council and relevant agencies.”
Mr. Feldman’s comments at the Committee on Health hearing included: “With glyphosate being the poster child for unacceptable, hazardous pesticide use around our children and families, this legislation is critically needed to protect the residents and the environment of New York City, and advance the adoption of organic land management practices in parks and playing fields. . . . The approach to land care specified by this legislation identifies an allowed substance list to ensure that the products and practices used are compatible with the organic systems that protect people and local ecology. It is this approach to pesticide reform that will effectively stop the unnecessary use of hazardous pesticides applied in parks and public spaces throughout the city. While addressing urgent local concerns related to public and worker health and the environment, passage of this law in New York City will make an important contribution to reversing the escalating crises in biodiversity, including pollinator declines, and the climate crisis — which are exacerbated by petroleum-based, synthetic pesticides, the release of carbon into the environment, and the lost opportunity to sequester carbon in organic soil systems.”