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Waterford snips popular weedkiller Roundup

Growing concerns over potential impacts to Alewife Cove and other public areas prompted the Waterford Department of Public Works to cut Monsanto's Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides from its lineup of weedkillers this season.

"We will be going with organic, environmentally friendly, nontoxic applications this year," said Nancy James, of public works, noting the town may hire a landscaping business that exclusively practices organic land care. "We want to do it in a means that's not going to cause problems for residents and surrounding waterways."

Waterford's switch comes as Monsanto faces a torrent of lawsuits over Roundup, which a federal jury last month pinned as a substantial factor in causing a California groundskeeper's cancer. Monsanto, hit with an $80 million payout in the case, has long said it would vigorously defend glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup and similar herbicides.

Many farmers and landscapers, the state Department of Transportation and local municipalities — including New London, Groton City, Ledyard, Stonington and others — rely on glyphosate-based products like Razor Pro, AquaNeat, Prosecutor or Roundup for annual or spot spraying along guardrails and curbs and under signage. Officials in several towns emphasized that they use the herbicides on a limited basis and only in targeted areas to protect the public and water supplies.

Monsanto, a Missouri-based agribusiness sold last year for $66 billion to German pharmaceutical company Bayer, cites "more than 800 scientific studies and reviews," including by the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, the Environmental Protection Agency and other nations, that "routinely review all approved pesticide products and have consistently reaffirmed that glyphosate does not cause cancer."

In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic" to humans based on "real-world exposure" leading to limited evidence of cancer in humans. The IARC said studies of pure glyphosate showed "'sufficient' evidence of cancer in experimental animals." The IARC concluded there was strong evidence of genotoxicity — potential to damage cells' genetic material — in both pure glyphosate and glyphosate formulations.

Last year, the IARC said the hundreds of lawsuits against Monsanto by cancer patients, the relicensing of glyphosate by the European Union, and California's labeling of the herbicide as a carcinogen led to "unprecedented, coordinated" attacks on IARC's study of glyphosate from the "agro-chemical industry and associated media outlets." 

Haley Sharack, a holistic wellness consultant who recently posted on Facebook urging the Waterford community and others to push against herbicides, said towns and residents should invest in natural options.

"This has a huge impact on the totality of the ecosystem," Sharack said in an interview. She noted that many residents invest heavily in organic products while maintaining a "preventative and optimal health, anti-cancerous lifestyle and diet," so she would be "enraged" to see tax dollars spent on toxic substances.

Charla Lord, a spokesperson for Bayer, said in an email Thursday that glyphosate-based herbicides, of which there are more than 700 products on the market, are a valuable tool "used safely and successfully for over four decades worldwide."

"A verdict in one case by one jury, which is not yet final, does not change the conclusions of an extensive body of science ... as well as the determinations of regulators around the world that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe when used as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic," Lord said. "Notably, the largest and most recent epidemiologic study — the 2018 independent National Cancer Institute long-term study that followed over 50,000 pesticide applicators and was published after the IARC monograph — found no association between glyphosate-based herbicides and cancer."

DPWs, state: herbicides cheaper, safe

New London Public Works Director Brian Sear said his city uses Roundup "on a limited basis for spot treatments as needed, less than 3 gallons" annually applied by city staff. As part of annual treatment mandated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city also hires a contractor to treat the area adjacent to the hurricane dike along Shaw's Cove with about 1.5 gallons of Roundup. A contractor also applied Roundup to an area near railroad tracks during renovations of Riverside Park, increasing visibility and eliminating poison ivy. All told, the city spends about $1,500 on spraying every year, Sear said.

Sear added that Gowan Company's Scythe, an organic weedkiller primarily made of natural fatty acids, "treats foliage but does not affect roots."

Ledyard, which usually sprays just one day every year to treat vegetation at the base of the guiderails throughout town, contracts with Tennessee-based TruGreen, which has offices in Rocky Hill. It does so through a state bid "according to detailed specifications that are developed thoroughly and carefully and incorporate consideration for environmental concerns," Public Works Director Steve Masalin said this past week.

"We work with residents and their concerns, if they are willing to perform the work in lieu of spraying, and also take great care in proximity to water supply watersheds," Masalin added, noting the spraying service cost about $1,700 in 2018 and 2019. "Mowing and trimming is labor-intensive, requires continuous effort to maintain, particularly along guiderail areas, and can pose hazards to the residents and the Public Works staff when working in the roadways of Ledyard, due to a fair number of twisting, curving roads. The herbicide application performs these functions for substantially less monetary cost, far less labor, keeping our residents and labor safer and allowing our Public Works staff to focus their efforts elsewhere."

In a statement, TruGreen New England Technical Manager Ryan Petitti said the safety of employees and customers is the company's top priority.

"We do not use Monsanto's Roundup product, and our use of products containing glyphosate is very limited," Petitti said. "We also take great care to ensure our employees are trained in proper application technique and according to label directions and federal, state and local regulations."

'No cost-effective alternative'

Since the mid-1970s, the state Department of Transportation has conducted an annual herbicide spraying program "to safely, efficiently and effectively control the encroachment of vegetation on and under guiderails, signs and barriers," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said Thursday. Glyphosate is one of the herbicides DOT uses, with Nursick saying vendors "control vegetation in a 3-inch-wide spray pattern under the various guiderail systems throughout the state."

"Glyphosate binds tightly to soil and is broken down by the bacteria in the soil relatively quickly. It is also low in toxicity to fish and wildlife," he added. "As far as alternatives, we continue to monitor the marketplace and science in this regard, but to date, there is no effective (or cost effective) alternative to meet our needs."

Vendors contracted by the state must meet strict DOT and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection standards, including proper pesticide and applicator licenses and experience applying herbicide along highways using traffic control vehicles, Nursick said. Mowing two to three times during the growing season controls vegetation in open areas adjacent to the guiderails. Nursick said the contractors use herbicides labeled "CAUTION," signaling the EPA classifies the substance as "slightly to relatively non-toxic to humans," or "the least toxic of herbicides manufactured" compared to products labeled "WARNING" or "DANGER."

Nursick said DOT has partnered with the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to combat an increase of undesirable, invasive plant species "taking over our landscape" along highways.

"The only control tool that works effectively is the application of herbicide," which eliminates sprouting or suckering of the plants, many of which produce "thousands of seeds that are viable for up to seven years, making timing critical," Nursick said.

DEEP, meanwhile, provides a broad range of guidance for municipalities, gardeners and businesses considering a transition to organic land care. DEEP says it has partnered with the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association to provide assistance to towns and cities to convert to organic materials instead of conventional pesticides and fertilizers on athletic fields.

While many landscapers use conventional products containing glyphosate, others like Safe Lawns & Landscapes of Salem offer hybrid lawn care programs that combine organic and traditional products. Other landscape design and maintenance companies, like Sprigs & Twigs in Gales Ferry, or South Eastern Connecticut Landscaping in Waterford, focus on organic and eco-friendly land care.

"There's a push for a more organic approach to land maintenance and getting away from glyphosate," said Jeremy Pelletier, director of operations for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, which offers accreditations for landscapers through its Organic Land Care Program. "In the past we offered about two trainings a year. Last year we did four, this year we're doing four and we're on the hook for five in 2020. It's growing."


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