Use of Monsanto’s Roundup at UO’s Spencer View comes to a halt

In mid-April, Katie Cave was in her apartment at the University of Oregon’s Spencer View student housing, letting her two girls — 20 months and 3 1/2 years — play outside in the front lawn area and dirt. When she peeked her head out to check on them, one of the grounds maintenance workers called her over.

“I was told,” she said, “that I should teach my children not to eat dirt. I said, ‘They’re kids, they play in the dirt and a lot of little kids will then put their hands in their mouth and eat the dirt.’”

He responded by telling her Monsanto’s Roundup has regularly been used as a weed killer at the complex.

“It was pretty quick after that,” she said, “that I started emailing.”

Cave’s friend Abby Rius, who is a mother of a 14-month-old girl, said, “Every single person who I spoke to said, ‘What? They use Roundup?’ Nobody who lives here knows that it is happening.”

For Anna Penny, a mother of a soon-to-be three-year-old girl, first hearing this news sent up a red flag as she had just read an article about the chief ingredient in Roundup — glyphosate — on the Huffington Post, which she forwarded to The Emerald.

The article examines an April 2013 peer-reviewed report in Entropy (PDF), which states that glyphosate may be a “significant environmental toxin, mainly because it is pervasive and it is often handled carelessly due to its perceived nontoxicity.”

The parents’ concern was further heighted by a December 2012 article from the American Academy of Pediatrics, entitled “Pesticide Exposure in Children,” in which there is an “expansion of the epidemiologic evidence base supporting adverse effects after acute and chronic pesticide exposure in children.” Glyphosate is included in their list of pesticides.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency started in 2009 to review the pesticide (PDF). However, a final review of it won’t be released until 2015.

“We don’t want to wait and see,” Rius said, “if the university decides, ‘Oh, the EPA says this isn’t safe, so we’re not going to use it.’”

What she, Cave, Penny and others want is for Roundup usage to be stopped entirely.

So, between April 12 and May 31, the three of them and other parents and residents sent emails to various people throughout the UO, trying to get answers to their concerns. Many times, they received no response — even from those who said they would write back with an answer, according to emails residents forwarded to The Emerald.

One exception was on May 1, when Gwynn Daniels, who is director of UO’s environmental health and safety, wrote “Although the use of Roundup is not allowed in children’s play areas, under the UO Integrated Pest Management Program it may be used in other public areas.”

With regard to Roundup itself, she noted that while no pesticide is without risk, “Roundup remains one of the least hazardous products available.”

“Planting beds, shrubbery areas and stuff — that wouldn’t be an area,” she said, “that would normally be considered someplace that children would play.”

She had looked into alternative approaches to Roundup, but all had acetic acid. From her own reading, concentrated acetic acid is more immediately hazardous than concentrated Roundup because of its high acidity and not as effective.

When it comes to where the responsibility lies with the choice in using Roundup, she pointed to Gus Lim, the UO’s new director of housing facility services.

“He is the one who makes the final decision,” she said. “He can voluntarily make a decision about changes in application that might make a difference.”

It was in her May 1 email to the three mothers that she suggested for them to contact him.

But none of the emails the three mothers or any of their friends had sent him drew any response — at least not until May 31, when finally he wrote Rius and Abbey — but not Cave — saying a meeting with the two of them would be scheduled for June 4 to attempt to address their concerns.

Though he had ongoing discussions with Daniels about these concerns, which she confirmed, Lim took full responsibility for the failure to respond in a timely manner.

“The timing issue is my fault, I can say that up front, ” he said. “Unfortunately, the challenges of other parts of work have gotten in the way, so to speak, with managing facilities for university housing.”

Sixteen parents and residents ultimately showed up to the Tuesday morning meeting, each hearing about it via word-of-mouth and who weren’t busy with work or school.

Lim explained how the application of Roundup is applied monthly to bushes surrounding each building — except for those bushes closest to the individual apartment entrances; other sprayed areas include planting beds as well as any weeds popping up in the cracks of sidewalks. The goal, he said, is to provide a groomed, professional landscaped appearance and resident privacy.

But these areas, many parents said, are where their children play regularly.

When asked in a prior interview how he would address this concern, Lim said those are areas people should not be in.

“I got to believe most children — at what age who are able to walk and run and things like that — will say, ‘I would rather play in the open field and the play areas,’” he said.

At the meeting, Roundup alternatives were suggested, including: groups of residents who would weed by hand, weed guards, corn gluten, acetic acid as well as low-maintenance plants. Spencer View already exempts certain areas from spraying — 11 playgrounds, eight organic gardens and a centrally located playing field.

Lim said he was open to these suggestions and would look into how useful, applicable, effective and available the alternatives are.

In the meantime, though, those attending wanted something done now.

Rius took the lead and told him directly: “For the next 45 days, there will be no more Roundup spraying. You will come back and have a meeting with us, and then at that time, we’ll see what’s going on.”

He agreed to this, repeating her words back to them all as confirmation.

“I want to make sure,” she said, “that another month doesn’t go by where our kids are playing in the dirt.”

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Jonathan Bowers

Jonathan Bowers