Bass bill banning toxic herbicides on council agenda

by Kate Dolan
Posted 10/9/20

An ordinance proposing the elimination of toxic herbicide use on publicly owned land in Philadelphia is scheduled for a city council hearing on October 13.

Bill #200425, titled Healthy Outdoor …

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Bass bill banning toxic herbicides on council agenda

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An ordinance proposing the elimination of toxic herbicide use on publicly owned land in Philadelphia is scheduled for a city council hearing on October 13.

Bill #200425, titled Healthy Outdoor Public Spaces, introduced by 8th District City Councilperson Cindy Bass, will also require the city to report its use of approved pesticides in parks, playgrounds, recreation centers and all city grounds. There is currently no protocol in Philadelphia for reporting where herbicides are sprayed, or in what quantities or types.

Exposure to herbicides, a type of pesticide used to kill unwanted plants, has been shown to cause numerous health conditions in humans, including asthma, cancer, learning disabilities, birth defects and neurological damage.

The bill, assigned to the Health and Human Services Committee of Philadelphia City Council, was developed in collaboration with Toxic Free Philly, an all-volunteer group of residents and ally organizations whose combined professional experience includes public health, urban ecology, restoration, medicine and environmental law and policy. The ordinance aims to protect people from harmful chemicals while also shifting to organic land management methods that restore and sustain ecological health.

"We don't just want a product swap. It's about a whole new approach, one that builds soil health so it can better retain carbon and grow the plant communities we want,” said Sadie Francis, Toxic Free Philly member. “Our reliance on herbicides is like a toxic treadmill; it creates many of the problems land managers are trying to solve by using the herbicides.”

In Philadelphia, 18 toxic herbicides are currently used, including Glysophate, the main ingredient in Roundup, which has been banned in several countries for being a “probable carcinogen.” If the bill is passed, Philadelphia will join over 100 cities in the US that have already enacted legislation prohibiting or critically limiting the use of toxic pesticides.

Pesticides were initially seen as a cheap and harmless land management strategy but they are disrupting ecological systems.

"Less than .1% of pesticides sprayed are hitting their target,” said Francis. “The rest are going out into the environment and poisoning our air, soil, and water."

Francis points to the “perilous state” of the Monarch butterfly. Monarchs rely solely on the milkweed plant to survive — a plant that is being widely damaged or killed by herbicides, despite being a non-target of the chemicals.

“One of the reasons Monarchs are on the path to extinction is our collective use of these poisons,” said Francis.

Both Francis and Kris Soffa, a member of Toxic Free Philly, compare the attitudes surrounding pesticide use to those held towards tobacco use in the 1950s, when cigarette smoking was encouraged and framed as beneficial in some advertising campaigns. 

"This is kind of where we are with these herbicides,” said Soffa. “We were told they were safe, but with this new information, we now know without a shadow of a doubt that they are extremely dangerous. Just because they are legal doesn’t mean they are safe.”

Under the new legislation, “any organic, non-synthetic substances effective as herbicides may still be used,” states the bill’s fact sheet on Toxic Free Philly’s website. Also allowed are “minimal risk, synthetic substances, ​as outlined in the Organic Foods Production Act​.”

Toxic Free Philly has been advocating for the ceasing of toxic herbicide application for over a year but the bill’s introduction in September was especially timely, as the nation grapples with the Covid-19 public health crisis. Over the summer, people headed out to public lands like the Wissahickon Park in record-breaking numbers.

“People truly rely on public spaces for recreation and stress reduction; they are our lifelines, they are the shared wealth of our communities,” said Soffa. “But spending time in areas treated with toxic chemicals increases your exposure to them. Research now shows that such exposure can affect your immune system. So during this pandemic, a restriction on toxic herbicides is more important than ever.”

The Healthy Outdoor Public Spaces bill is cosponsored by Councilmembers Cherelle Parker, Curtis Jones, Isiah Thomas, Allan Domb, Katherine Gilmore-Richardson, Kenyatta Johnson, Jaime Gautier and Kendra Brooks.

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