It may come as an unpleasant surprise to learn that over a dozen toxic herbicides are applied to Philadelphia public grounds, including glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) and 2,4-D (one of the two active ingredients in Agent Orange). The chemicals in these herbicides — which we at Toxic Free Philly identified from public records — used by the city to control weeds are not safe. Strong evidence shows that they cause cancer. Recent lawsuits against the companies that manufacture them, including a $10 billion settlement from Bayer to settle claims against Roundup, illustrate that point. They are neurotoxic and cause endocrine disruption at even low levels. They can cause liver disease, kidney disease, and disrupt our microbiome — the trillions of microbes that live in our bodies and protect us from harmful germs.
Children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable to herbicides’ significant effects. There are associations with pesticide exposure to autism, learning disabilities, birth defects, decreased fertility, and increased rates of childhood leukemia, among other health consequences. The workers who apply the pesticides are also at high risk. Herbicides are poisons designed to disrupt and harm life, and they do the job well.
On Oct. 30, City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Services will revisit a bill introduced by Councilmember Cindy Bass to ban the use of toxic herbicides on all city-owned or used public grounds and require the city to report all uses of approved pesticides. In this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, Council has added impetus to pass this legislation. Those with weakened immune defenses are the most likely to have the poorest outcomes from the virus, and herbicides may weaken the immune system. The elderly, those with cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and countless others with chronic illnesses have weakened immune systems. How ironic that the beautiful Philadelphia parks and open green spaces that have been safe havens for those of us weary of social distancing are laced with poisons that can harm our most vulnerable residents.
Additionally, as the pandemic unfolds, we are seeing the disparate impacts of the virus on lower-income communities and communities of color due to the widespread inequities that have long undermined their health.
This fall, our city and our nation are at a crossroads, and we must choose which direction to pursue. There are safe and effective ways to manage our parks, playgrounds, and recreation areas. Over a hundred cities and municipalities across our nation have protocols that eliminate or dramatically reduce the use of toxic chemicals for land management. Organic land management is proving to be no more expensive than using toxic herbicides. Transitioning to organic land management could be a catalyst for building and expanding the green economy to support the city’s goals to reduce our impact on climate change while addressing social justice needs.
The medical and environmental evidence against herbicides is overwhelming. It’s hard to argue the case for spending taxpayer money to poison us, our land, and our drinking water without our knowledge or permission. Philadelphia City Council has the opportunity to pass legislation to ban its use. The citizens of Philadelphia deserve no less.
Linda Stern is a retired internal medicine physician who spent most of her career at the Philadelphia Veteran Affairs Medical Center and treated many patients exposed to Agent Orange. She is a member of Toxic Free Philly.