The Toxic Free Future campaign wants to end the use of Roundup on public land in Sonoma County.
Hidden Valley Park on the northeastern edge of Santa Rosa lives up to its promising name. A thick swath of dandelion-dotted grass at the center of the city-owned property calls up a longing to sunbathe or do a few cartwheels with the kids. A walking path circling the grass invites an easy stroll. A break in a stand of oaks leads to Paulin Creek, which is surprisingly untamed though it runs straight through the heart of suburbia. Children play tag during recess at the elementary school down the street, lending a sense of joy to the scene.
Up on a hill near a play structure, I sit with Megan Kaun, a mother of two and member of the Santa Rosa Board of Utilities (BPU). Kaun, a petite blonde with striking blue eyes, lives nearby and spends a lot of time in this park. It functions in her family as an extended backyard, a place to bring the kids to play and meet up with neighbors to socialize.
Two years ago, when Kaun found out that her natural sanctuary was routinely sprayed with Roundup—the glyphosate-based herbicide recently categorized by the state of California as a cancer-causing chemical under Proposition 65 (The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986)—she became concerned. The mandated warning signs weren’t always posted, and the sixth grade class was scheduled to come out and plant trees the day after a big pre-winter spray.
“The whole thing felt bad to me,” says Kaun, but as a “busy, overworked mom” she’d never before given pesticides and their possible impacts on her children much thought. Despite her education as an environmental engineer, she says she felt uninformed about the difference between an herbicide and a pesticide. She jumped online to do some research and discovered that the Santa Rosa parks department actually had an integrated pest management plan, which stated that least-toxic weed management
methods should be used first. Synthetic herbicides like Roundup should only be a last resort and only if other methods failed to work. She also discovered that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had classified glyphosate as a Group 2a probable carcinogen, meaning there was evidence that the chemical could cause cancer in humans. “My kids roll down this hill,” Kaun says. “I was like, I don’t want them rolling in that crap.”
Simultaneously, Kaun used her position as member of the BPU to advocate that Santa Rosa Water Agency stop employing synthetic herbicides on their 67 properties. Ultimately, they listened and stopped using Roundup unless the situation had no other alternative. But, she didn’t have the same success with the city parks department. In fact, a call to the manager of the parks in the city’s northeast quadrant—where Hidden Valley Park is located—had a different outcome. He was reluctant to talk with her and said there was nothing she could do to stop the spraying and that his department was following the rules. When Kaun asked if a few neighbors could come out and weed the park in place of using herbicides, he said no. Don’t worry, he added—“Roundup is safe. I would drink it.”
Dismayed that a land management employee would make such a claim, Kaun called the park’s superintendent to ask about weeding in place of spraying and received a similar response. “They didn’t really want my input,” she says. “Two years ago in Santa Rosa, no one was thinking about herbicide and weed management. I was treated as a crazy, overreactive parent.”
At this point, a mom on a mission, Kaun rallied teachers and parents from the local school and neighbors to challenge the parks department. They barraged the superintendent with angry calls. Reluctantly, an agreement was reached. The weekend before Thanksgiving, 25 people came out to weed Hidden Valley Park, in what has turned into a yearly event. Since then, Roundup, as far as Kaun knows, has been sprayed just once at the park.
Still, Kaun wondered what about other public lands around Sonoma County. Other schools. Parks. Walkways. Why were synthetic pesticides being used so regularly in a county world-renowned for organic farms, permaculture, and sustainability advancements? Why in a county with the third highest rate of childhood cancer wasn’t this possible carcinogen being reconsidered as a weed management method, especially in places inhabited regularly by children? Kaun
decided to contact Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA) to see if they might help her launch a Toxic Free Future campaign, one that would aim to lower and eventually eliminate the use of Roundup and other synthetic herbicides on public land across the county. Sebastopol had already done it. Petaluma City Schools was dabbling with safer weed management approaches. And parents and public health workers in Marin County, Irvine, and other places across the U.S. had mounted successful campaigns to get rid of toxics in schools and parks.
But it’s all easier said than done. Thanks to advertising campaigns funded by Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup, glyphosate is still considered by most to be safe—when applied according to the package directions. Glyphosate has been in public use since 1974 when Monsanto registered it as a method of killing a variety of broadleaf weeds and grasses. As an herbicide, it blocks a key enzyme in the plant’s production of amino acids, essentially starving the plant: It is applied for weed management in the millions of pounds across the world. The EPA has long classified glyphosate as non-carcinogenic for humans, but in 2015, just before Kaun started lobbying for Hidden Valley Park, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a Group 2a probable carcinogen, meaning there was evidence that it most likely causes cancer in humans. On July 7, 2017, the state of California—after a contentious court battle with Monsanto—listed glyphosate as a cancer-causing chemical under California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (Prop. 65).
So, when Kaun contacted Kerry Fugett, the executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, she found a listening ear. After more research, Fugett realized that the energy around reevaluating glyphosate use on public lands was moving quickly. The state of California had labeled it a probable carcinogen and added it to the list of ingredients that must be labeled as toxic. And the news was filled with stories of massive crop loss in Arkansas and other states due to drift from dicamba, the broadspectrum herbicide also manufactured by Monsanto. (In July 2017, Arkansas and Missouri banned the sale and use of dicamba because ofcrop damage.) Plus, the City of Irvine had just launched an organics-first progressive pesticide plan, meaning it was possible to do land management on public spaces without using synthetics.
“[Roundup] is still sprayed everywhere,” says Fugett. “It’s still the number one weed management tool in the whole county. It’s sprayed in our public spaces. Our fairgrounds, our schools, our roadways, our waterways. It’s a recognized known carcinogen. It’s a public health concern.”
Take Sonoma County Regional Parks where glyphosate-containing products like Roundup make up 64 percent of pesticides sprayed at parks and properties managed by the parks over the last 10 years. Guided by their own integrated pest management plan, the parks claim that herbicide use has been on the decline and that they applied an average of 50 gallons a year from 2007 to 2016. Spraying occurs primarily along trails, parking lots, and gravel road shoulders. The information on just how many gallons of pesticides are sprayed on other county properties isn’t as easy to acquire, which will change if the Toxic Free Future campaign is successful.
According to Fugett, the campaign specifically targets publicly owned county lands, Santa Rosa City Schools (because it’s one of the largest districts in the area), and the City of Santa Rosa. It’s modeled, in part, on Marin County’s successful decade-long effort to phase out glyphosate-based pesticides on public lands and their development of a governing body of appointed volunteers who keep accountability and centralized reporting at the forefront of pest management in Marin.
HERE’S HOW THE TOXIC FREE FUTURE CAMPAIGN BREAKS DOWN:
1. CITY OF SANTA ROSA Toxic Free Future asked the Santa Rosa City Council to reconsider current landscaping practices. The council agreed and entered into a three-month process to decide on how to evaluate new bids for landscape contracts with organic pest management practices.
2. SANTA ROSA CITY SCHOOLS After meeting with the district’s assistant superintendent and director of maintenance and operations, who have been supportive, SCCA has asked that the district come into compliance with the Healthy Schools Act of 2000, which established right-to-know procedures for pesticide use in California public schools and mandated using least-toxic pest management methods as state policy. At press time, the district’s school board was reevaluating their approach to pest management.
3. SONOMA COUNTY Currently, all pesticide use on publicly owned lands are supposed to be reported to the Ag Commissioner’s office. Yet, upon making public record requests, SCCA found that getting data from the 60 different county agencies is a challenge. They’d like to see the development of an innovative county-wide integrated pest management plan that prioritizes non-toxic methods, a centralized reporting system for pesticide use that culminates in an annual report that shows what’s been sprayed, and a citizen oversight committee similar to what already exists in Marin. Once those things are in place, they’d like see the county work towards zero-synthetic pesticide use, with exemptions for situations impacting safety and health.
The County supervisor and organic farmer Lynda Hopkins recently voiced her support for the Toxic Free Future campaign. She blames the application of synthetic herbicides as the go-to land management solution on convenience, affordability, and decades of status quo.
“Now is the time to demand more environmentally friendly alternatives from local government,” said Hopkins by phone. “We have a progressive community of people in Sonoma County who are very conscious and aware of the impact of chemical sprays. Yet the county is one of the larger users of pesticides, including glyphosate—or Roundup. That seems an odd dichotomy and something that we need to address as a community.”
At the same time, organic and least-toxic practices generally cost more in labor and purchasing costs, a fact that Hopkins acknowledged. “We obviously need to look at cost factors. But, I’m a mom, and I think that a lot of parents feel that not exposing their children’s health and not exposing their children to pesticides on public parkland is priceless. How do we make it normal not to spray chemicals into our ditches, which by the way runs straight into our creek, and from our creeks into our river where our kids play?”
Megan Kaun still seems surprised that her initial drive to protect her own children has transformed her from a working mom into a community activist. For her, the issue comes down to a desire to be able to fully trust that the land managers in her city and county are making informed choices with transparency and citizen oversight.
“You tell me you can drink Roundup—okay—I don’t trust you anymore,” she says. “My trust in their ability to do their jobs and keep things safe for my kids was eroded in five minutes. There are a lot of careless safety things going on in our shared spaces. These are areas that we all use. We’re being told to interact more with natural spaces. Our kids are supposed to get dirty. We’re supposed to “forest bathe,” right? We’re supposed to bond with our open spaces. How can we do that when there are chemicals that can hurt us being sprayed?”
As we wrap up our conversation in Hidden Valley Park, where purslane and other weeds grow without disturbance, Kaun muses on the campaign behind her and the one ahead: “We need to go back to the old aesthetic: the idea that if you see dandelions in your lawn, that means it’s a safe place for kids to play. I tell my kids that if you don’t see any weeds then don’t go in there because it’s not natural. It means something fishy is going on.”