More than half a century since the publication of Rachel Carson’s environmental science book, “Silent Spring,” exposed the menacing consequences of pesticide use, their haphazard application to San Diego public lands today was the subject of a recent Pacific Beach Town Council meeting.
About 40 people braved torrential rains on Nov. 20 to attend and hear about some minor victories in Non Toxic San Diego (NTSD)’s campaign to get authorities to switch to organic methods for insect and weed control in parks and school grounds — or at least improve public notification when such hazardous chemicals are being applied.
Despite the scale of the City, county and federal government’s reliance on questionable and outright dangerous chemicals in local public spaces, the non-profit organization is counting on increasing public awareness of the threat to stem the tide.
“It’s time to get off the pesticide/herbicide treadmill that we’ve been on since the 1960s,” said Anne Jackson Hefti, one of the founders of NTSD. “We have too many studies coming out all around the world talking about the damage that pesticides and herbicides are doing, not only to our health, but to our children’s health, our animals’ health, our soil’s health, our bees’ health.”
Citing public records, retired schoolteacher Teresa Craig reported ominous numbers of chemical use just in Mission Bay. In only four months of this year, she told those gathered, 2,875 gallons of Roundup (the herbicide manufactured by Monsanto-Bayer) was sprayed on Fiesta Island. In other sections of the Bay — including Vacation Isle, De Anza Cove and Playa Pacifica — 1,642 gallons were sprayed over five months.
Craig also noted that November and December are particularly heavy herbicide spraying months in order to abate the spurt of weeds appearing after rains.
“You’re getting it on your shoes,” said Hefti. “Your kids are getting it on their shoes. Your dogs are getting it on their feet ... And then you’re going home and nesting in it because it’s on your clothes, your feet and your dog’s feet. If you have a dog, your dog is going to be lying in its bed, licking its feet.”
To demonstrate the risks, Craig showed a slide listing the warnings found on the labels of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used by the San Diego Unified School District, which included the use of protective clothing until a chemical dries and a warning that men working with a particular chemical — Speed Zone — are at a risk of fertility problems.
“This is their approved pesticide list,” Craig said. “This bothers me. It bothers me that our children are here. It bothers me that teachers are here. It bothers me that community members come into the schools and our parks and this is what they’re subject to.”
In addition to human health, presenters also discussed the effect of pesticides and herbicides on the environment. According to Gina Felter of the Xerces Society, which does the annual butterfly count in November, the population of the local Western Monarch butterflies has been devastated, declining to a mere six Western Monarchs for every 1,000 butterflies typically seen in the 1980s.
Despite well-intentioned people cultivating milkweed to rejuvenate the population (it’s the only plant on which the Western Monarch will lay its eggs), she said “there’s just no point” if people continue spraying in other parts of the garden. The chemical’s migration by wind and through soil and water into the roots, turns the entire plant into a fatal poison for the butterfly.
Call to action
“I don’t know when the weed became the enemy, because we basically traded an innocent little weed for a cancer-causing chemical,” Felter said. “What we can all do today is just stop buying it. Stop using it. Ask your neighbor to stop using it. Just let them know. It’s having the information.”
Although worldwide attention has focused on glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Roundup brand that has been banned in 19 countries in the European Union and elsewhere, NTSD is seeking to eliminate all toxic pesticides and herbicides in San Diego.
“The United States is very far behind in adopting at least glyphosate-free parks and schools,” Hefti said. “We don’t want it to be just glyphosate. We want non-toxic. It’s playing Whack-a-Mole with pesticides. It just allows them to pick nine other pesticides they can spray that might be just as toxic or more toxic than glyphosate.”
NTSD was founded in February 2019 when Hefti was walking her dog in Sunset Cliffs Park and crews started spraying the area with 208 gallons of Ranger Pro pesticide without notice or warning before Hefti could get her dog and leave.
After the incident, Hefti discovered other residents from her Sunset Cliffs/Ocean Beach community who had similar experiences with no notice or poorly posted signs, like a piece of paper duct-taped to a “No Parking” sign that had been knocked down.
“If we can’t have an organic integrated pest management (IPM) policy, then at least ... we are asking the City, County and the Port Authority that if they’re going to spray, to post signs and post them in places where people can see them, so they can make a choice if they want to be in the park or not,” Hefti said.
The group heralded recent progress since their launch 10 months prior. The Port Authority will begin using standardized signs to notify the public of pesticide and herbicide applications at Shelter Island and Spanish Landing.
In addition, the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department announced it will implement a pilot program for an organic IPM policy at three parks: Nobel Athletic Fields and Recreation Center, Liberty Station NTC Park and Azalea Park.
According to Craig, 22 cities in California have adopted organic IPM policies for their public lands, including Irvine.
“No, this is not perfect,” said Hefti. “This is far from perfect. But it’s an improvement.”
According to Hefti, NTSD has sent e-mails and information to Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office and every representative on the City Council and County Board of Supervisors and has yet to receive a single reply. Because policy change requires political influence, Hefti made a pitch to the audience for the grassroots support required.
“You can, each of you, make a difference in our community by raising your voices,” she said. “We have over 400 parks in San Diego, so it’s going to take more than just Teresa, Gina and I coming to town council meetings every month. It’s been 10 months of coming to meetings every Wednesday and we work, too. We need all of you to be actively involved.”
In other Town Council news ...
• So long Officer Hesselgesser: Like the discussion on pesticide and herbicide use, the audience got more tough news when the San Diego Police Department announced the retirement of Community Relations Officer Larry Hesselgesser.
Hesselgesser has been a San Diego police officer for almost 26 years and served as the Northern Division’s liaison to Pacific Beach and other communities for the past six years.
“Out of the last 25-plus years that I’ve worked with San Diego, this is truly one of the most rewarding positions I’ve ever had in the department,” Hesselgesser told residents in attendance. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Thank you for listening to me and not being too rough on me at these meetings.”
Hesselgesser will be replaced by Officer Melanie Bognuda, which according to Lt. Lisa McKean, is a fair exchange.
“When he told me that he’s leaving, I kind of got a little scared,” McKean shared. “I’m losing my woobie. What am I gonna do? And then, as luck would have it, I got Melanie. I promise you, Larry is leaving you in good hands with Mel. Melanie is going to continue that excellent level of customer service, that responsiveness, everything you guys have come to expect because Larry has set the bar so high.”
— PB Town Council next meets 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15 at Crown Point Junior Music Academy, 4033 Ingraham St. at Pacific Beach Drive. pbtowncouncil.org
Want to learn more?
• Visit nontoxicneighborhoods.com The organization assists municipalities, school districts and communities switch to proven and organic land management.
To request pesticide/herbicide report
• From the City: sandiego.nextrequest.com
• From the County: sandiegocounty.gov/content/sdc/awm/contacts.html
• From the Port Authority, e-mail public records requests at email@example.com
• From San Diego Unified School District: Parents/guardians can sign up for prior notification of individual pesticide applications at their site. Those listed on this registry will be notified 72 hours before pesticides and/or herbicides are applied. In an emergency that requires spraying of pesticides, the site will be notified and signs will be posted; however, those listed on the registry will not be notified.