Updated: Feb 16
I was invited to testify at the New York City Council’s Health Committee’s hearing on a bill to ban pesticides from City-owned and -leased parks and land. I submitted the written testimony below, but added to my spoken testimony to address a specific concern for my home District 11.
The North West Bronx, District 11, is ⅓ park land, which is a fantastic statistic that comes with its own unique challenges, including dealing with invasive species. Invasives are all over the area -- from the little yellow wood sorrel flowers to the spikey porcelain berry and climbing English ivy. Invasive species fill in holes in the local ecosystem; they take advantage of an open niche and proliferate. In reality, they are a symptom of a sick ecosystem. The Parks Department has used pesticides to combat the invasives, which becomes evident when one drives the Henry Hudson into Yonkers and sees the vines overcoming the trees on the other side of the City line, as Council Member Andrew Cohen pointed out in his testimony that day.
So I added the following (not an exact quote) to my testimony about Riverdale Park, a Forever Wild site along the Hudson:
Kids and dogs and their adults walk and run, play and explore at Riverdale Park. In fact, for eight years I’ve been taking groups of students as young as 3, but most often 6-years -old, into the woods in a program we’ve aptly named Into The Woods. In the woods, they explore, run, find edibles, see snakes and owls, and listen to the bird songs. I teach them how to find bugs and how to identify poison ivy. But there was a day last year when we entered the woods and I saw the yellow pesticide signs. I saw large swaths of wilting wood sorrel all along the footpaths. I knew that glyphosate, a likely carcinogen, had been sprayed along the path where I was taking the kids to explore. That day I did not let the children do the things we normally do. I instructed them to wash their hands even better than usual. At my testimony, I asked the Committee on Health what was I supposed to do that day with 10 six-year-olds in the woods?
It is the ultimate irony to create forever wild spaces with poison that kills all the soil, microbes, insects, to unburden trees. The trees really need healthier soil, more diverse insects and plants, and ground cover to fill the niches and to compete the invasives out of the area.
I also pointed out in my testimony that I spent a Sunday on a shady slope in Wave Hill with their team pulling the invasive little yellow flowers off the wood sorrel plants. I did that for hours, picking these flowers alongside the Executive Director of Wave Hill, Karen Meyerhoff. Together we cleared the slope.
That was the end of my testimony.
There are solutions to the invasive species problems that do not involve pesticides.They just take people-power. The more I think about it, the more this scenario demonstrates the power of a whole systems approach. There are ways to fix this sustainably that also improves ecosystem resilience, and provides jobs in the process.
So here is a totally hypothetical systems-based solution that I would work through:
There are parks (wild spaces) where people go, and those where people don’t go
There is a need for good Bronx-based jobs
There is funding available for Green Jobs
There is no current staff at Riverdale Park allocated to manual invasives removal, though there are resources to spray
There are caring and active not-for-profits in the area that either directly manage park spaces or are close enough (i.e. from a school) that they can organize and enter the park for volunteer days or expansion of current volunteer programs.
For invasives in parks where people go -- like Riverdale Park -- leverage not-for-profits and local groups like schools and faith-based groups to systematically remove invasives manually and partner with the Parks Department to provide nourishment to the ecosystem for restoration. Funding is minimal, resources formerly used for pesticide spraying can be diverted.
For areas too remote for people, yet still at risk from invasives, seek funding from Green Jobs initiatives and Nature initiatives at the City, State, and even Federal levels to train a Bronx-based team to identify and remove the invasives, to garden and augment soil, to care for the Forever Wild spaces. This would require more resources allocated to the Parks Department, and specifically given to the Districts where there is a widespread invasives issue.
We will need to replace poison with people-power -- and that’s OK. It’s an investment in our natural spaces and in our community.
January 29, 2020
Written Testimony of Jessica Haller, Vice Chair, Board of Directors, Hazon, on behalf of Hazon as submitted:
To the Committee on Health, New York City Council:
Thank you, Council Member Kallos and the members of the Committee on Health for the opportunity to submit testimony on Intro 1524 on Banning the use of toxic Chemical Pesticides on City property.
I am here to testify on behalf of Hazon, a NYC faith-based environmental organization, where I serve as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors and Chair of the Hazon Seal of Sustainability. Hazon has more than 50,000 members across the US; 75 communal institutions, many of them here in NYC, participate in its Seal of Sustainability program.
Hazon means vision, and its vision is to create and support healthy and sustainable communities. Hazon has recommended the banning of pesticide use since the inception of the Seal program six years ago. The risks of pesticide use to human health almost always outweigh the benefits to horticulture or agriculture.
I applaud this bill and encourage the committee to send it on to the full Council with your strong recommendation for passage.
This legislation is exceptional not only for its ban on pesticides, but also because it implements the precautionary principle, which bans pesticides that are classified as probable, likely, and possible human carcinogens. The precautionary principle states that, when an activity causes some threat or harm to the public or the environment, general precautionary measures should be taken. It places the burden of proof on safety, not harm.
So often in this country, the burden of proof falls on citizens and mothers in the playground to defend their kids and their health. Most people assume our government uses the precautionary principle, which historically has not been true in the U.S. I applaud the Council for ensuring this important concept is part of the legislation. Thank you for promulgating it in our City.
Here’s why this legislation is so important:
1. NYC School Children, especially in the Bronx, are facing an epidemic of asthma. Certain pesticides can cause and/or exacerbate asthma.
2. Pesticide exposure is also linked to increasing the risk of certain kinds of cancers, neurological and endocrine system harm, and birth defects.
3. Our children are among the most frequent users of the City’s outdoor spaces. They play on the ground, near the floor. They roll balls through the grass.
4. Children aged 6-11 have higher levels of lawn chemicals in their blood than any other age category.
5. The chemicals are tracked into homes and schools on shoes, where they remain for much longer than when subjected to sun and rain outside.
As a mother of four, I can attest to both the small size of kids, that they play on the floor and roll in the grass, and should be allowed to do so. I also attest to the absolute fear and panic that comes with hearing that your local park is going to be sprayed by the City, as happened in my neighborhood in May 2010.
My friend, a pediatrician, lived at the time across from Ewen Park, between the Kingsbridge and Riverdale neighborhoods in the Bronx, blocks from the 231st Street subway station, and across from a Public School. With three kids and a dog, she spent a lot of time in Ewen Park, and was horrified to see signs one day warning the community of the spraying.
She, another friend, and I mobilized quickly, contacting Speaker Quinn, Council Member Koppell, the press, State Senator Schneiderman, and the Governor, and in 36 hours managed to stop the spraying. The spraying stopped in Ewen Park that one time, but not in the hundreds of other parks, and not for all time.
As I wrote to a local paper at the time:
“These past 36 hours have taken 3 Riverdale moms through a roller coaster of environmental hazard, fear, and ultimate victory against a scheduled spraying of Monsanto's RoundUp herbicide in our Ewen Park.
This story needs to be told - and the community needs to be alerted to the fact that the parks we spend time in, where our dogs roam and our kids roll in the grass, can be subject to spraying of such a virulent herbicide. In light of the President's report on cancer and our friend’s recent diagnosis of Acute Myelogenous Leukemia - this story is timely and important.”
Reflecting on the events of 10 years ago, I am heartened that this bill will help make sure that our children will not be exposed to dangerous pesticides.
In closing, I want to confirm that the bill includes herbicides such as Roundup, a notorious chemical used by City Parks in the amount of more than 500 gallons in 2016.
The bill lists sub-classifications of pesticides, including “Anti-microbial pesticide, Bacteriostats, Disinfectants, Sanitizers, Fungicides and fungistats.” The word “herbicide,” however, does not appear. I hope that this toxic chemical is the intended target of this bill and that language to that effect will be added. I understand that there may be State requirements necessitating the existing language, and if so, and if we agree on intent, then my comment is resolved.