For the Good of All Using Public Spaces, City Needs to Ban Herbicide Use

Dr. Linda Stern, for the Shuttle

Philadelphia City Council is poised to take up legislation to eliminate the use of toxic herbicides on public grounds including parks, playgrounds and recreation centers. Bill # 200425, Healthy Outdoor Public Spaces, represents an important step toward protecting the health of people, pets and the environment. More than 100 cities in the United States have a policy to reduce or eliminate herbicide use. The Public Health Committee scheduled a hearing on the bill for October 30 and the full Council may review it as early as November. City Council has the opportunity to join this rapidly growing movement to rectify a public health crisis by passing this legislation.

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 are not safe; strong evidence shows that they cause cancer. Several recent successful lawsuits against the companies that manufacture them 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 most vulnerable to the effects of herbicides. Pesticide exposure is associated with autism, learning disabilities, birth defects, decreased fertility and increased rates of childhood leukemia, among many other health consequences. The workers who apply the pesticides are also at high risk. There are no safe levels of herbicides; they are poisons designed to disrupt and harm life and they do the job well.

In this era of COVID-19, City Council has added impetus to pass this legislation. Those with weakened immune systems — the elderly, those who live with cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other chronic illnesses — are the most likely to have the poorest outcomes from the virus, and herbicides weaken the immune system. 

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 the very places 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 100 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. City Council has the opportunity to pass legislation to ban their use. The citizens of Philadelphia deserve no less.

Dr. Linda Stern is a retired internal medicine physician who spent most of her career at the Philadelphia Veteran Affairs Medical Center. She treated many patients exposed to Agent Orange and saw the devastating effects of herbicides on human health. She is a member of Toxic Free Philly.