Regretting the use of pesticides

Spraying Milestone in Glen Canyon Park, June 2012

Recently visitors to Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco spotted a Pesticide Application Notice in their park, which states that Milestone herbicide was used on “sweet pea.”  Sweet pea is not classified as an invasive plant by the California Invasive Plant Council.  Milestone herbicide is classified as Tier I “Most Hazardous” pesticide by San Francisco’s IPM program because it persists in the ground for a long time.  The City’s IPM policy states that it is approved for use on “invasive species.”  Since sweet pea is not an invasive plant, we assume this pesticide application violated San Francisco’s IPM policy.

The federally mandated Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Milestone advises users to, “Prevent [Milestone] from entering into soil, ditches, sewers, waterways and/or groundwater.”  The MSDS also says that Milestone “is not readily biodegradable according to OECD/EEC guidelines.”

For these reasons, the manufacturer of Milestone herbicide withdrew its application to sell Milestone in the State of New York, after the State of New York determined, “The [New York State] Department [of Environmental Conservation] could not ensure that the labeled use of aminopyralid [the active ingredient in Milestone] would not negatively impact groundwater resources in sensitive areas of New York State.”  In other words, the sale of Milestone herbicide is banned in the State of New York.

Kid playing in Glen Canyon Park. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

Since Glen Canyon is a watershed to Islais Creek, we believe it is irresponsible to use Milestone in that park.  And clearly there is no justification for using this persistent herbicide on a plant as benign as sweet peas.  Since Glen Canyon park is the home of a year-round day care center as well as a summer camp which leads children throughout the park, it is outrageous that these pointless risks were taken there.

We have learned nothing….

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book, Silent Spring, there is renewed media interest in this issue.  We welcome this reminder that Rachel Carson informed the public in 1962 that DDT was having a devastating impact on wildlife.  DDT had been used for about 20 years, but it took that long for us to notice that some species of birds had been poisoned nearly to extinction.  And it took another 10 years for DDT to finally be banned in 1972.

Rachel Carson was vilified for her revelations, just as critics of the so-called Natural Areas Program are being vilified by supporters of that program.  We have been called “chemophobes” and “anti-chemical crazies.” 

Frank Graham, editor of Audubon Magazine, recently wrote an article for Yale University’s “environment 360” blog about the abuse that Rachel Carson endured after the publication of Silent Spring.  He recounts several anecdotes about the attacks on her character.  For example, “An official with the federal Pest Control Review Board drew laughter from his audience when he remarked, ‘I thought she was a spinster.  What’s she so worried about genetics for?’”

Forty years after DDT was banned in the United States we have a local example of the persistence of this dangerous chemical in our environment.  From 1947 to 1966, several companies on the harbor in Richmond, California formulated, packaged, and shipped pesticides, including DDT.  The site was designated a State Superfund site in 1982, and in 1990 the EPA placed the site on a national priorities list for clean up.  “Remedial actions took place on the site from 1990 to 1999.”  Twelve years later, the EPA tells us, “Although actions were taken to reduce the risk from the pesticides found on site…sediments and the water [in that location] are still contaminated with pesticides, primarily DDT and dieldrin.”

In other words, we fouled our water with dangerous pesticides; we then spent many years and probably a lot of money trying to clean up after ourselves, and 40 years later we are still living with the consequences of our foolishness.

What have we learned from that experience?  Now we are using a very persistent chemical (Milestone) on a benign plant (sweet pea) in our public parks.  We have learned nothing.  And those who have some economic gain from poisoning our parks—or are clueless about the risks they are taking—are defending the use of pesticides and trying to shut us up, just as they tried to shut Rachel Carson up 50 years ago.  We are proud to be in her company and we are inspired by her leadership.

Some people have learned

Peaches at “Organic U-Pick” Courtesy Arnita Bowman

We prefer to end our stories on a positive note when we can, so we turn to a book we read recently about a fruit farmer in California’s Central Valley.  David Mas Masumoto wrote Epitaph for a Peach to tell us about his transition from the traditional farming methods used by his father to organic methods.  He has abandoned rigorous weed and pest control and he is learning to live in harmony with his orchards rather than fighting against nature.  He tells us about the difficult decision to quit using pesticides:

“I am reminded that in some valley wells they have found traces of a chemical called DBCP in ground water aquifers.  DBCP was linked to sterility in males and is now banned in the United States.  My dad used some DBCP years ago…No one knew it would contaminate drinking water.  Neighboring city folks are angry with farmers for damaging their water supply.  ‘How could you farmers poison the water?’ they ask.  My dad didn’t choose to pollute the water table.  He did nothing illegal.  He simply trusted the chemical company and the governmental regulatory agencies.

Mr. Masumoto has learned from bitter experience.  What we know about pesticides today is not necessarily what we will learn about them tomorrow.  We often look back on our use of pesticides with regret.  So, shouldn’t we at least avoid using them when we don’t need to—such as on flowers just because they aren’t native—or in places where the risks are great—such as public parks occupied by children?

Let’s turn that rhetorical question into the affirmative statement that it deserves to be:  We should not be using pesticides in our public parks or on plants that aren’t doing any harm.  We will live to regret it when we do.  And let’s express our gratitude to Rachel Carson for inspiring us to keep informing the public of the needless risks that are being taken in their parks. 

“Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought”

We treated ourselves to a visit to an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, entitled “Do Not Destroy:  Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought.”  The title is taken from a commandment in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19):

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, do not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them.  You may eat of them but you must not cut them down.  Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?  Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed…”

This admonition is expanded by modern Jewish thought to encompass man’s responsibility to protect all of nature from harm.  The tree is a universal symbol of all nature. 

The Jewish Museum invited over 50 international artists to create original works of art inspired by the Jewish holiday which honors trees, Tu B’Shevat.  One of these works of art was awarded first prize by a public popularity contest. 

“Fauxliage: No Birds Sing” by Lisa Kokin. with permission. Photograph by Lia Roozendaal

At first glance, the viewer sees a branch of a eucalyptus tree with its graceful sickle-shaped leaves in a skeletal state, seemingly long-since dead. 

We must look more closely to appreciate the symbolic message of this evocative piece.  The leaves are in fact made of the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.   Silent Spring was published in 1962, so we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of this ground-breaking book.  The pages have been shredded and wired together with thread and wire to create the delicate skeletal frame of each leaf. 

“Foliage: No Birds Sing” Detail with permission. Photo by Lia Roozendaal

The poetic justice of this piece took our breath away.   Silent Spring forever changed the public’s perception of the pesticides that were used in the environment at that time.  Rachel Carson informed us that these pesticides—particularly DDT—were killing our birds, silencing our springs when birds should be singing as they claim their nesting territories and attract their mates.  Although DDT was banned long ago, and many birds have recovered from the damage it caused, new pesticides have been developed and are being used to kill eucalyptus and many other non-native plants and trees.

 We have no way of knowing the artist’s intention in creating this work of art, but we commend her for celebrating the beauty of the eucalyptus and for the deeply ironic reference to the pesticides being used to kill them.  The public’s vote for first prize for this beautiful piece is evidence that there are many fans of the much-maligned eucalyptus.

[Edited to add:  We have received this comment from the artist, Lisa Kokin:  “The only thing that struck me was the sentence that begins, ‘We have no way of knowing the artist’s intention…’  It seems a bit paradoxical, given that you do understand why I chose Silent Spring to embed in the piece.  It is my concern about the environment and its destruction by corporate greed that motivated me to use Carson’s book and create a piece that speaks of that destruction in a poetic, rather than didactic, way.”]

We urge all lovers of trees to visit this exhibit which will continue until September 9, 2012.  And we ask native plant advocates to consider the commandment of the Torah and the Old Testament:  Do Not Destroy our Trees!