Town moves to limit use of pesticides

By Hoa Nguyen
Staff Writer

September 20, 2004

Responding to growing public concern over the use of pesticides and other toxins to fight weeds and pests, government leaders are starting to take action.

Town officials said they want to create a policy to curb pesticide use on town land and the state attorney is joining a multistate suit to force a reduction in pesticide use in public housing.

But while those actions are laudable, supporters of stricter pesticide regulations said, they aren't enough to reduce the overall popularity of pesticides and other chemicals to which many private landowners have easy access.

"It's much harder to regulate private homes," said Nancy Alderman, president of New Haven-based Environment and Human Health Inc.

Recently, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal joined attorneys general in five other states in suing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying the federal agency isn't doing enough to make local housing authorities rein in pesticide use.

"We've warned the federal government previously that we would take action if they didn't take action," Blumenthal said.

The lawsuit cites the 1996 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, which requires federal agencies such as HUD, which funds public housing complexes, to use and promote what is called Integrated Pest Management, a technique that uses chemicals and other toxins only as a last resort.

"Most of the housing officials whom we questioned in Connecticut had never even heard of Integrated Pest Management," Blumenthal said. "They used exterminators and pesticides."

Terry Mardula, deputy director of the Greenwich Housing Authority, said he didn't know what IPM (Integrated Pest Management) was but that for extermination services, the housing authority contracts with Temco, a building maintenance firm. The firm is called in whenever a resident requests such services and whenever a tenant leaves a unit and the place needs to be cleaned.

"I would imagine they would use the correct thing," Mardula said. "They're licensed professionals."

Pete Gasparino of Greenwich, who works for Temco, said workers typically use traps for rodents and refrain from spraying pesticides. He referred additional questions to the company's expert on chemicals, who did not return messages seeking comment.

In terms of lawn care, the Greenwich housing authority has a contract with a landscaping company for mowing and weeding, which Mardula said didn't include the spraying of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Any such work would require a new and separate contract, he said.

A greater awareness of the potential harm pesticides pose, including a risk for cancer and respiratory problems, prompted officials to wield the act to reduce toxins in and around public places, Blumenthal said.

"There's much greater awareness and sensitivity about the potential problems pesticides cause, whether in schools or housing or any place, particularly where children live and study," Blumenthal said.

While any reduction is viewed as good, advocates of more stringent pesticide regulations said the impact of a successful lawsuit would be minimal.

"It's just a drop in the bucket," said Dr. Barry Boyd, a Greenwich oncologist who regularly warns of the danger pesticides pose to human health. "Our society is taking for granted these pesticides. So we're inundated with chemicals."

Pesticides and other chemicals used to ward off weeds and pests, such as insects and rodents, are so readily available in popular department stores, many customers don't realize the potential harm they cause, he said.

"People are very naive about their toxicity," Boyd said. "They're poison, they're designed to kill."

Studies have shown that children and pregnant women are more vulnerable to pesticide exposure, mostly because children have smaller bodies and because, over time, they may be exposed to toxins for longer, Boyd said.

"The issue is not that children are going to get bladder cancer, it's that children will build up these compounds," he said. "Over a period of years, it could lead to a higher risk."

At the same time, Boyd said he took the move toward reducing pesticide use in public housing as a positive sign.

"Less is better, no matter how you look at it," Boyd said. "While it's ideal to be in a chemical-free world, I don't think that's going to happen."

Reduction of pesticide use also is on the minds of town officials who said they will do their part to reduce their use of such toxins in areas the town owns.

"It is one where we will develop a policy," First Selectman Jim Lash said.

But the town can only do so much because the larger problem may be the cumulative effect of many landowners using pesticides and herbicides, he said. According to the tax assessor's office, Greenwich owns 1,737 acres, or 5.4 percent of the land in town, excluding rights of way.

Earlier this year, the town published a report on water use in Greenwich, which revealed that water samples taken from some streams in town showed trace levels of pesticides. The thinking is that rain washed the pesticides from people's lawn into the streams.

Officials said the levels were so low they weren't alarmed, but the results did highlight the effect pesticide use has on water resources.

Lash echoed sentiments ex-pressed by other officials who said more public education is needed to inform property owners about the potential dangers of pesticides.

"In general, the public has gotten lackadaisical about pesticides and I think we need to pay attention to how we treat pesticides," Conservation Director Denise Savageau said.

The town hopes to develop a policy regulating pesticide use by its departments. The policy would favor less dependence on chemicals and encourage Integrated Pest Management techniques. At the moment, there is no deadline for such an effort, but it would likely involve parks, conservation and other department officials.

One town department that uses herbicides is Public Works. Highway Superinten-dent Joseph Roberto said workers use chemicals only for spot applications along roadways, such as for weeds sprouting through cracks on the sidewalks. Although most of the landscaping work by the roadway involves mowing, workers also have spray bottles of RoundUp, a popular herbicide, that they use in certain places, such as underneath a guardrail.

"If you can't mow underneath, that's when we use a little RoundUp," Roberto said.

Tree Superintendent Bruce Spaman said he has taken a stab at drafting procedures for pesticide and other chemical use, based on IPM techniques, such as promoting hand-weeding and banning the blanket spraying of herbicides and pesticides in favor of spot treatments for problem plants, such as poison ivy.

Because of concerns raised about the use of chemicals, Spaman said workers are reserving pesticide and herbicide use for special cases.

"We've pretty much had a moratorium on putting anything down until we have a clear policy," Spaman said.

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