Local Pesticide Control: How Your Town Can Protect Health and the Environment

Saturday, September 24, 2016
Common Ground Country Fair

Panelists at the teach-in included, left to right, Jay Feldman, Dr. Bruce Taylor, Mary Ann Nahf, Paul Schlein (moderator), Julie Rosenbach, Avery Yale Kamila and Mary Cerullo. English photo

With a 700 percent increase in the distribution of home-use pesticide products in Maine in recent years, what are citizens’ options when state and federal governments are not adequately protecting our health and environment from these toxic chemicals?

Maine is one of seven states that allow towns to create local laws that are more restrictive than state or federal laws, and 27 Maine municipalities have ordinances that restrict pesticide use beyond state requirements.

The 2016 teach-in organized by MOFGA’s Public Policy Committee at the Common Ground Country Fair addressed such ordinances, with committee member Paul Schlein moderating. It is posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yA72fDY0o2A (Part 1) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN1V_xV1i1o (Part 2) and is recapped here.

“The last two years,” said Schlein, “have marked a historic watershed in Maine, the entire country and beyond in development of pesticide ordinances,” with the most comprehensive in Ogunquit and South Portland, where outdoor applications of synthetic pesticides are prohibited from most public and private property.

Panelist Jay Feldman of Beyond Pesticides said, “We all want to protect what we do, and [we want] the right to manage our land as we’d like, but the unfortunate story with pesticides is that they move off of the target site. So when we’re applying pesticide to our own property, it’s actually ending up in the watershed, drifting off the target site, so contamination affects our neighbors.” The U.S. Supreme Court, he said, has affirmed the right of all local jurisdictions to adopt pesticide standards that are more restrictive than state or federal standards.

“We are trying to empower people to embrace this notion – to acknowledge that these chemicals are toxic, they are being used on our turf, and that we have alternative practices that work,” said Feldman. “The principles are the same as in organic agriculture: improving soil, beneficial microbial activity, building soil health, cycling nutrients … The people who object to the idea that we take chemicals away are beginning to embrace the notion that we can manage turf and landscapes without toxic chemicals.”

When elected officials say they lack the expertise to restrict chemicals and that they depend on EPA and state departments of agriculture and environmental protection to protect them, that begins a discussion about EPA’s deficiencies and limitations, said Feldman. The EPA does not test for mixtures of chemicals or for endocrine disruption; it does not adequately protect the elderly or those with preexisting conditions, with cancer, with degraded immune systems, or children with asthma or other respiratory problems.

Dr. Bruce Taylor, who is board-certified in pediatrics and anesthesiology, teaches at the University of New England and University of Southern Maine, and is a member of the Toxics Committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maine Chapter, said that “over 80,000 chemicals are in commercial use, and an additional 10,000 are registered as pesticides. At the same time, almost 18 percent of our gross domestic product nationwide is spent on health care.”

He discussed a very vulnerable population: the pregnant mother and her baby, the infant, the small child. The old idea that the placenta is a barrier to toxic chemicals “is entirely wrong.”

A 1971 study done in Iraq after people consumed grain treated with methyl mercury fungicide (because the warning was in English) showed that the concentration of methyl mercury in the newborn was higher than in the mother’s blood, and many mothers with relatively high concentrations showed no signs of toxicity, while their babies did. “[T]he fetus and the small child, and especially the developing brain, from the time it is in utero until about 18 months of age, is very sensitive to environmental toxins and chemical disruptions,” said Taylor.

Pesticides are one of the major chemical disruptors, he added, and children are especially susceptible because of their hand-mouth activity, increased respiratory and metabolic rates, need for more water, lower concentrations of detoxifying enzymes and lack of a well developed blood-brain barrier.

“Much more difficult and concerning and prevalent than acute poisoning,” he said, “is this continuous low-dose exposure to pesticides and toxic chemicals.” Based on a study from the Harvard School of Public Health that looked at pesticide exposure in 25 million children, researcher David Bellinger, Ph.D., estimated that 16 million IQ points were lost among those 25 million children. Other studies, said Taylor, show that each lost IQ point equals about $21,000 lost in lifetime earnings.

“That doesn’t include health care, psychological care, special education. Pesticides,” he added, “are linked to neurological and behavioral problems, including autism; to prematurity and low birth weight, which are very costly and devastating; loosely linked to birth defects; and are endocrine disruptors not only causing premature puberty but also obesity; and … cancer.”

When the urine of pregnant mothers shows increased metabolites of pesticides, five years later ADHD increases significantly. Among mothers who worked in Ecuador, where organophosphate pesticides are used liberally in the cut flower industry, newborn children had high levels of organophosphate metabolites in their cord blood and had significant behavioral problems.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer says that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and some other herbicides, is a probable carcinogen. Atrazine, another common herbicide, mimics estrogen, so it advances puberty and is associated with ovarian and breast cancer in adults continuously exposed to low doses. Ten percent of applied lindane, used to kill mites that cause scabies, is absorbed systemically.

Diet can modify our risk, continued Taylor. In one study, children who ate conventional diets had elevated levels of organophosphates; when the children were put on an organic diet, organophosphates were almost undetectable; returned to a conventional diet, levels shot up again.

Local ordinances, said Taylor, are very important, as are decreasing exposure from air, dust and soil, having protection zones around schools and playgrounds, and, when pesticides are applied, using them in a very targeted and strategic way.

Mary Ann Nahf chairs the Conservation Commission in Harpswell, Maine, which has 216 miles of shoreline. Since 2004, through education (such as “A Resident’s Conservation Guide to Casco Bay”) and ordinances, residents have reduced polluted runoff into Casco Bay. In 2009 the board of selectmen pledged to “minimize the use of pesticides and other things that pollute our waters” on town properties, and residents pledged for their own properties. In 2013 a ban on chemical fertilizer use in the shoreland zone was enacted. In March 2016 residents unanimously voted to prohibit use of pesticides that affect aquatic invertebrates and pollinators.

Nahf pointed out that no one in Harpswell lives more than 2/3 of a mile from the water. “We have a marine economy, a very strong lobstering association. We realized that if we could zero in on anything that could harm lobsters, clams, crabs, the local potable water supply, pollinators (we have some beekeepers in town) and have scientific data, we would have the best opportunity to pass any ordinances.”

In 2004 the state started aerial spraying the Harpswell area for browntail moth. After a couple of years, local lobstermen were finding many dead lobsters in their traps, and the insecticide Dimilin – a growth regulator that stops insects from molting – appeared in the intertidal area. The lobstermen asked the town to stop funding spraying. The town agreed, and within a few months an ordinance passed banning aerial spraying of any insect growth regulator and any insecticide that affects aquatic invertebrates. Another ordinance allows only organic fertilizer within the 250-foot shoreland zone.

Landscapers support the 2016 ordinance, said Nahf. “We’ll have a roundtable in the spring to see how we can help them convince their clients to follow the law.”

Julie Rosenbach, sustainability coordinator for South Portland, led the development and passage of South Portland’s pesticide ordinance banning most pesticides on public and private property. Pesticides are allowed if they can be used under the National Organic Program and are labeled by the EPA as minimum risk. Rosenbach said five key elements made the initiative successful.

1. Starting with a clear directive. “A local activist group brought the issue to our city council. Speakers, including Jay Feldman and Mary Cerullo, said pesticides are a problem for human health and the environment, and you can do organic land care management. Our council was interested.” Town staff shared pesticide ordinances from Ogunquit; Scarborough; Montgomery County and Takoma Park, Maryland; Marblehead, Massachusetts; and Burlington, Vermont, as models. The city council had staff develop an ordinance to restrict or eliminate use of pesticides. “So we were able to focus less time on what we should do and more time on how we should do it,” said Rosenbach. The city manager appointed Rosenbach, the stormwater program coordinator and the park superintendent to a committee that met at least weekly for a little over a year and met with many stakeholders.

2. Using the precautionary principle. “In terms of data, we know less than we should,” said Rosenbach, “but we know that pesticides are showing up in the water; that a growing body of scientific literature says that pesticides are harmful to human health. We asked ourselves, do we know enough to act? We and our city council were satisfied that we did.”

3. Including as many people as possible in the process. “We gave them parameters: We had a clear directive from the city council … to really restrict or eliminate use of pesticides … When industry said, ‘We’re already doing IPM,’ we said, ‘Great, we don’t want to talk about IPM. We think our ordinance is consistent with that. We want to talk about the end result of pesticides being put down for landscaping purposes.” Feldman’s information and ability to communicate with people lacking a science background was crucial, she added.

4. Striving for a bold but realistic ordinance. “We wrote the most comprehensive ordinance we thought possible” and allowed for it to be phased in. In May 2017 it will apply to public land; in May 2018 to private property; in May 2019 to golf courses. It includes exemptions for public safety and for invasive insects.

5. Prioritizing education and outreach over fines and penalties. Rosenbach will work with the code enforcement officer to register complaints on their website. Rosenbach will use outreach and education to bring people into compliance. “We think most people will want to follow the law but don’t quite understand it,” she said. “We will help people understand what the transition to organic lawn care means and how you do it.”

Portland resident Avery Yale Kamila, a journalist who grew up on a Maine organic farm, formed Portland Protectors in 2015 with Portland businesswoman Maggie Knowles to urge the city council to adopt a comprehensive pesticide ordinance.

Portland Protectors has used networking and social media to move this issue. For networking, said Kamila, “MOFGA’s the place to start.” Portland Protectors also emailed people they knew who were working on the issue and reached out to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Toxics Action, Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, beekeepers, green business owners, health food stores, city staff and city councilors, and local conservation groups such as Friends of Casco Bay.

“We also set up a Facebook page,” said Kamila; “a great way to have an instant, free web presence and to connect with other groups, such as How to Create A Non Toxic Community (https://www.facebook.com/groups/809015852551493/). Post regularly on Facebook and localize your content. If I post a link to something happening in California, I’ll say we want this to happen in Portland.” Use a lot of photos and ask key supporters to ‘like’ a post, she advised. “We post events. Sometimes we pay to promote our posts on Facebook. It’s low-cost advertising.”

To store email addresses and send up to 2,000 emails free, they use Mailchimp, which has attractive templates and provides statistics about clicks and opens.

They created a petition to the city council on Change.org. When they post updates to the petition, everyone who signed that petition receives an email about the update. They share their petition on social media.

Mary Cerullo, award-winning author of children’s books about the ocean, is associate director of the South Portland Friends of Casco Bay. She is responsible for its environmentally friendly lawn care program, BayScaping. The organization began 18 years ago out of concern about pesticides and fertilizers entering the bay. It continues to advocate about ocean-related issues.

“Casco Bay encompasses about 20 percent of the population on 3 percent of the land in Maine,” said Cerullo.

Friends of Casco Bay collects data and uses science to inform its advocacy and education. Cerullo said that the 700 percent increase in lawn care pesticides distributed in Maine occurred after blue laws were overturned and big box stores started coming here.

“We try to collaborate,” added Cerullo. “We worked with the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association, the arborist association, MOFGA. And we talk to the people who don’t necessarily agree with us. We try to persuade them, and we learn about their concerns.”

To find out whether pesticides were flowing into Casco Bay, Friends tested stormwaters and found pesticides in 13 sites – some exceeding concentrations that EPA determined would harm aquatic life.

Friends also worked with the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC), which was sampling sediments for pyrethroids – chemicals that were used on New York’s Long Island Sound to kill mosquitoes and were directly blamed for a 1999 incident that “pretty much destroyed the lobster fishery” there, said Cerullo.

Friends has also sampled for nitrogen flowing into Casco Bay. “It’s been found everywhere we sample regularly, at over 50 sites, especially at river mouths and where stormwater runoff runs into the bay.” Excess nitrogen promotes algal and phytoplankton growth. When these organisms die and are broken down by bacteria, CO2 is released and acidifies the water. “We have ocean acidification in Maine at a level that is starting to dissolve tiny clams,” said Cerullo.

To promote Bayscaping, Cerullo added, “we use neighborhood socials, lawn signs and peer pressure. We’re putting together a workshop called Champions for the Bay. We’re going to talk to people about how to talk to neighbors. You can’t tell neighbors, ‘Hey John, your lawn looks great. Are you still using those toxic chemicals that are killing kids, dogs and the environment?’ So we’re trying to find ways to help people broach the subject of reducing their use of lawn chemicals. Like do you know dandelions attract bees? Do you need a soil test kit?”


Responding to a question about glyphosate, Feldman said the EPA originally identified it as a suspected carcinogen but later reversed that position. About two years ago, the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer determined, based on data available internationally on the entire product (including “inert” ingredients), that it is a probable human carcinogen. The European Union found that it was not a probable carcinogen, based on studies (some from industry) of glyphosate without all its ingredients. Recently the EPA published a proposed finding that glyphosate is not likely to be a carcinogen. It has established a scientific advisory panel to discuss this.

Taylor added that for a while, Roundup included a surfactant, polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA), that was more toxic than glyphosate itself to human embryonic and placental cells.

The EPA’s risk-benefit analysis, said Taylor, considers environmental, social and economic costs and benefits. “Lawyers for the chemical companies influence this tremendously, so the EPA can allow substantial medical risks to be ignored if it’s an economic benefit.”

Feldman added that EPA makes risk assumptions – average body weight, average diet, exposure to only one chemical at a time rather than to mixtures – that don’t reflect reality or the information needed for a fair and full decision. We have to start talking to regulators and elected officials about those issues, he said. The health-based standard that people often refer to is really a risk-assessment-based standard. “Is this something the community accepts? And is it needed, given the alternatives?”

Feldman recommended enabling influential people in the community to speak up. “Scott Eldridge of Eldridge Lumber & Hardware said he could function without neonicotinoids, and has gone leaps and bounds beyond that and is offering organic-compatible products now. He’s a model and a leader in the community – and his business is making money while he’s committed to the environment.”

Schlein pointed out that in Maine a citizen’s initiative or an ordinance requires notifying the BPC seven days beforehand and within 30 days after the ordinance passes. Also, the Maine right-to-farm law requires notifying the commissioner of agriculture 90 days in advance to allow review of the ordinance to determine if it restricts the use of best management practices – one reason exemptions for agriculture are included in some ordinances.

Asked about prohibiting sales of some pesticides, Rosenbach said South Portland does not control what is sold. City staff will provide education to retailers. She personally would like to see pesticides kept behind a counter, as are some cold medicines.

An organic landscaper said that imidacloprid injected into linden trees will kill honeybees. He recommended NOFA’s Organic Land Care program as a resource, as well as Environment & Human Health Inc. (www.ehhi.org) and its board member Nancy Alderman. In response to another question, he said that genetically engineered Roundup Ready grass seed is not on the market now but could become a huge cash crop.

– Jean English


Mary Cerullo is associate director of the South Portland marine conservation organization Friends of Casco Bay. She is responsible for publications, public relations and educational outreach, including the environmentally friendly lawn care program, BayScaping. She is the author of 21 award-winning children’s books on the ocean.

Jay Feldman cofounded the advocacy organization Beyond Pesticides and has been director since 1981. In 1978 he dedicated himself to finding solutions to pesticide problems after working with farmworkers and small farmers through an EPA grant to work with the national advocacy organization Rural America. Feldman has since helped build Beyond Pesticides’ capacity to help local groups and impact national pesticide policy. He has tracked specific chemical effects, regulatory actions and pesticide law. He has helped develop successful reform strategies for local communities. His work with media has broadened public understanding of the hazards of pesticides. In September 2009 USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed Feldman to the National Organic Standards Board, where he completed a 5-year term in January 2015. He was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Fair, marking the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Avery Yale Kamila, a journalist with a degree in environmental science, grew up on an organic farm in Maine and attended the first Common Ground Country Fair held in her hometown of Litchfield. A resident of Portland, she and Portland businesswoman Maggie Knowles formed the grassroots group Portland Protectors in 2015 to urge the City Council to adopt a comprehensive pesticide ordinance. She has been serving as the citizen advocate on the Portland Pesticide and Fertilizer Task Force, which is expected to complete its work by mid-September 2016. Kamila is a former staff writer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and currently writes the Vegetarian Kitchen column for the paper’s Wednesday Food & Dining section.

Mary Ann Nahf chairs the Harpswell Conservation Commission. Harpswell is an island community with 216 miles of shoreline. Since 2004, through a combination of educational programs and ordinances, residents have reduced polluted runoff into Casco Bay. In 2009 the Board of Selectmen was the first to take the pledge to “minimize the use of pesticides and other things that pollute our waters.” The pledge applied to town properties, and residents signed cards “taking the pledge” for their own properties. In 2013 a ban on the use of chemical fertilizer in the shoreland zone was enacted. To give helpful tips, later that year the Commission produced “A Resident’s Conservation Guide to Casco Bay.” In March 2016 residents unanimously voted to prohibit the use of pesticides that affect aquatic invertebrates and pollinators.

Julie Rosenbach is the sustainability coordinator for South Portland, where she works on climate action planning, energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, waste reduction and recycling programs, alternative transportation options, minimizing toxics, and education and outreach regarding sustainability practices. Previously she was an EPA environmental protection specialist and the Bates College sustainability manager.

Dr. Bruce Taylor, a former professor and chair of the Department of Pediatric Anesthesiology and Intensive Care at Driscoll Children’s Hospital, Corpus Christi, is board-certified in pediatrics and anesthesiology and has held a fellowship in genetics and metabolism at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. At Boston Children’s Hospital he also did a fellowship in pediatric anesthesiology. Semiretired, he teaches at the University of New England and University of Southern Maine. Dr. Taylor has a special interest in the environmental etiology of disease and is a member of the Toxics Committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maine Chapter, as well as a Town of Sweden selectman.

Moderator Paul Schlein is on MOFGA’s Public Policy Committee and was the public information officer for the Maine Board of Pesticides Control.

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