The Coastal Star

Along the Coast: Park users band together in effort to replace toxic gardening products

Jan Grenell (left), Lauren Quinn and Erna Sullivan, pictured at Red Reef Park, say their Green Boca Now group is getting good cooperation from city officials about testing new ideas. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Mary Hladky

Three women who met while walking and enjoying nature in Boca Raton’s parks watched with concern as city workers sprayed chemicals to kill weeds and pests.

Deciding they needed to take action, they banded together to launch Green Boca Now. Their mission is to persuade the city to go green in its parks by ending the use of nonorganic herbicides, pesticides and insecticides that they say are toxic to insects, trees, wildlife and pets. They pressed their case with the city’s Recreation Services Department, the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District, city advisory boards and have appeared twice before the City Council.

“Boca is going to make it happen. It is just good for everybody — the environment, wildlife, residents and coastal waters,” said Lauren Quinn, who formed Green Boca Now with Jan Grenell and Erna Sullivan. “We just need to stop spraying toxic chemicals period, because there are natural alternatives that are even better.”

Quinn is in constant motion, running two small businesses, volunteering daily with a program to trap, neuter, vaccinate and return stray cats, studying organic products and sharing the most promising ideas with the recreation services department. Bedtime, she says, comes at 3 a.m.

Green Boca Now has three immediate goals: End the use of the weed killer glyphosate, chemical insecticides, and the herbicide Garlon the city uses to kill invasive vines. Quinn is working to persuade city officials to allow volunteers to pull invasive vines out of the ground in city parks instead.

Park users “see the chemicals being sprayed and they go ballistic,” she said. 

It’s all but impossible for park users to avoid the chemicals, Quinn said. She has seen barefoot children and pregnant women walking through treated areas, and fears the impact on their health.

Grenell, a retired nurse, has long harbored concerns about glyphosate. She and her late husband were told it was safe and used it on a peanut farm they owned in Alabama.

A prized goat she raised from a kid licked the spigots on a machine used to spray glyphosate and died 16 hours later. In another incident, her month-old daughter stopped breathing, and Grenell almost failed to revive her. Still later, her husband developed a very aggressive form of Parkinson’s disease. 

Grenell can’t say glyphosate was responsible, but she has not used it or pesticides for years. 

“I thought it was time to speak up,” she said. “I really do believe the city will do the responsible thing.”

Sullivan sees city workers spraying in the parks, and is especially concerned for children — including her grandson, 7, who attends a water sports camp at Red Reef Park.

“They spray all around there,” she said. “Children walk through it. I have seen babies crawling in the sand and it is full of weed killer. Little babies put this stuff in their mouths.

“My heart is for the children,” Sullivan said. “My heart is with the parents who don’t know.”

Glyphosate, the world’s biggest-selling weed killer and key ingredient in Roundup, has been used by farmers and home gardeners for more than 40 years. Sales skyrocketed in the U.S. as it was used with crops that were genetically modified to be resistant to it, allowing farmers to use it to kill weeds after crops emerge from the ground. Europeans generally shun genetically modified crops, but glyphosate has been a top-selling weed killer there as well.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has evaluated glyphosate since the 1980s, and has repeatedly found, most recently last year, that it is safe to use. The European Food Safety Authority and European Chemicals Agency, which advised the 28 members of the European Union, also has ruled it safe. And a joint United Nations and World Health Organization panel reviewed the potential for glyphosate in food to cause cancer in people, and concluded it was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans.”

But the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer fueled concerns about health risks when it said in 2015 that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” In an indication of rising concerns in Europe, the European Union last year voted to extend authorization for glyphosate for only five years rather than the typical 15.

The IARC’s finding opened the floodgates to litigation. Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed accusing agrichemical giant Monsanto of long knowing that glyphosate was hazardous to human health, and citing evidence linking it to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto has denied the allegations.

A number of cities, counties, states and countries have taken steps to either restrict or ban glyphosate. Eight out of 10 provinces in Canada, for example, have some form of restriction on the use of glyphosate. Last year, California added glyphosate to the list of chemicals known to cause cancer, and required companies selling it in the state to add warning labels to packaging.

The Recreation Services Department is working with Green Boca Now to explore options. 

Recreation Services Director Michael Kalvort told the City Council on Jan. 8 that his department started a pilot program last summer to evaluate organic and nonorganic products.

City employees, who are trained on best management practices for products, studied the effectiveness of Roundup, organic weed killer Avenger, and a mixture of soap, salt and vinegar advocated by Green Boca Now.

The test at Red Reef Park found that Roundup, which kills weeds and their roots, was the most effective, with Avenger coming in second and the home brew third. Roundup works if applied once a month, but Avenger has to be applied every week, he said. 

“What we are finding is the organic chemicals … have been less effective,” he said.

Organics cost more per application, and the increased number of applications boost the expense further, Kalvort said. Roundup costs the city $6,500 a year, while Avenger would cost about $39,000 a year.

He and his staff now plan to test the products on a larger area.

After the meeting, Quinn said she learned Avenger has started producing a much cheaper version. Stevens said city staff was working to confirm that, and would test it once it becomes available.

His department also is reaching out to a golf course and country club that use organic products, and will ask Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management to review its practices for removing invasive vegetation in city parks and preserves.

They asked that organic pesticides be placed on the agenda of the biannual meeting of parks and recreation directors in the county to find out what other cities are doing. They also will test new products as they come onto the market.

Green Boca Now informed the council and department about a steam machine that is being used elsewhere to kill weeds without using chemicals.

“We’d love to give it a try,” Kalvort said.

Council members indicated support for the efforts to find alternatives to the city’s current practices.

“Keep it up,” Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers said.

Allowing volunteers to pull up invasive vines would save money and free city employees to do other work, Quinn said.

“Green Boca Now has contacted dozens of integrated pest management programs throughout the country and all of them said they absolutely need volunteers when the parks go natural,” Quinn said. “They love their volunteers.”

She is hopeful the city will give her the green light.

“Use of volunteers on a trial basis, in a limited area, is being strongly considered,” Recreation Services Superintendent Greg Stevens said in an email. “The liability and process for using volunteers for this type of work is being researched and discussed, but a final determination has not been made at this time.”

At Green Boca Now’s suggestion, the department will reach out to the Broken Sound Club in western Boca Raton, hailed by Mayor Susan Haynie and council member Andrea O’Rourke as exemplary for its environmental initiatives.

The club started out modestly, replacing Styrofoam cups with biodegradables, said Shannon Easter, director of golf maintenance and environmental sustainability.

Today, the club recycles 95.6 percent of everything on its property and makes its own compost, so it does not need to use fungicides and fertilizer.

They use organic pesticides, and about 90 percent of the insecticides and herbicides they apply are organic. Weeds are mostly controlled by pulling them out of the ground by hand, he said.

Their award-winning initiatives include 22 beehives, 15 bat houses to control insects, 13 acres of butterfly gardens and 20 acres of wildflowers. They are adding solar power for parking lots and windmills for restroom power. They buy organic products from Mirimichi Green, a company co-owned by singer and actor Justin Timberlake.

“If you don’t start, you won’t get anything done,” Easter said.

Quinn and Grenell have nothing but praise for Stevens and others in the recreation services department, saying they communicate frequently.

“We were received openly,” Grenell said. “He (Stevens) is very open and receptive.”

“We are all working together for the common goal,” Quinn said. 

Stevens described the relationship between his department and Green Boca now as “positive.”

“The Green Boca Now committee has done a great deal of research and has provided Recreation Services staff with a wealth of product and contact information,” he said in the email.

Quinn said she is “very grateful” to the City Council and city staff for their willingness to listen.

“It is time to change,” she said. “Let’s be one of the most innovative cities.”

Contact Green Boca Now at info@greenbocanow.org.

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