Lack of Posting Law Leaves Students Unaware of Pesticide Dangers
The Mall. The Green. The Common. The Great Lawn. Whatever the name, almost all state colleges have one. And however one feels about all that mown grass requiring all that water, gas and fertilizer to maintain, there’s no denying the aesthetic and function of a large, regal gathering place at the center of a campus.
It’s perhaps the quintessential landscape feature of higher education, a place where youth is served, where innocence is celebrated . . . and sometimes lost.
“You just never imagine your own university would put known poisons down where we all go to sit and study or just relax,” said Kayla Iuliano, an undergraduate student at University of Delaware. “When you first hear about this it’s almost impossible to believe. It is not OK. It’s disgusting.”
Iuliano, from Racine, Wisc., said she first learned that her university sprayed pesticides on the grass from a friend, Kelsey Crane, who experienced a rash-like sensation after sitting on what Delaware students call “The Green.” She soon encountered other friends with similar stories of painful rashes and ultimately confronted one of the school’s pesticide applicators to ask him about the products he was using. That led to further talks with a reluctant administration.
Iuliano, an environmental science major, instantly became a journalist, publishing an Oct. 9 article in the school newspaper that called the college’s practice of spraying synthetic chemical weed killers into question.
“It was an incredible eye-opener for me,” she said. “Right away you knew something was up when you started asking questions. They didn’t want to answer. If they were using something super eco-friendly you’d think they would have been eager to share the information, but they weren’t.”
DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL . . . DON’T POST
In most states across the country the University of Delaware’s pesticide applicators would have been breaking a law and facing fines by not posting “Keep off the Grass” signs after spraying with two synthetic chemical weed-killing products known as Basagran T/O and PowerZone. In abutting New Jersey, in fact, the signs would have been required to remain in place for 72 hours, but Delaware doesn’t require so much as a four-hour flag.
“Why don’t we? That’s a good question,” said Dave Pyne, the state’s pesticide compliance administrator. “No one’s ever asked us to write that regulation. I’m not sure how effective how posting little signs is in keeping people off large areas anyway.”
Steve Carter, a former pesticide inspector with the Delaware Department of Agriculture, said some pesticide companies do post recently sprayed areas “as a courtesy to the customer and to protect themselves,” but admitted most probably did not.
That leaves students like sophomore Dylan Lecce completely vulnerable and without warning. He told Iuliano he was ”exercising on The Green approximately two weeks ago with a group of people” when he came in contact with the grass.
He also told her that, minutes after contact, “he and a majority of the group noticed their faces were irritated. Lecce said his eyes were burning as well.”
“My skin was pretty much on fire,” Lecce said.
SAFETY ASSUMPTIONS VS. LABEL REALITY
Those types of symptoms read directly off the Material Safety Data Sheets and product labels for PowerZone, a commonly used cocktail of four different weed-killing products in one. Among the ingredients are known and suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, as well as eye and skin irritants.
“Symptoms of exposure to (one of the ingredients, mecoprop) include burning skin and eyes, nausea, dizziness, and headaches,” reads a report from The Journal of Pesticide Reform. “In laboratory tests, mecoprop has inhibited the synthesis of DNA (the molecules that contain genetic information), interfered with blood clotting, and inhibited the production of important components of the immune system.”
Other symptoms tied to the weed-killing products used at the University of Delaware include a reduction in fertility, increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and neurological impairment.
“Students are just out there in the grass completely unaware of all these risks that the university is exposing us to,” said Iuliano. “The university advertises itself as being an eco-friendly campus. But if The Green’s not green, that’s obviously not true.”
She said she was given the standard pesticide party line by the university’s director of communications.
“University Spokesman John Brennan stated in an email message that workers are not required to post signs when areas are sprayed because the chemicals are not harmful when used properly, and personnel are trained in how to apply them,” she wrote in her article. “He said the sprays are commonly-used commercial products and are registered for use with the Environmental Protection Agency. They are recognized in the industry as safe when applied as directed.”
Even the synthetic chemical pesticide industry, however, would recommend that Delaware students stay off the grass at least until the pesticide products are dry and there’s no indication that is happening on a campus that doesn’t require even minimal posting. The students, and their tuition-paying parents, have every right to feel betrayed by an irresponsible pesticide policy.
This is clearly a situation where the university — and an entire state — need to take action.