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Raleigh Cleans Up Pesticide Spill in Park, Concerns Over Risk to Health and Environment
(Beyond Pesticides, June 4, 2004) On June 1, 2004, Raleigh Eco News reported that city workers excavated an area of Raleigh’s Gardner Street Park last month after state authorities found unacceptably high levels of pesticides from a spill that occurred during spraying earlier this year — and they are awaiting further test results to determine whether additional remediation is needed.

Among the chemicals detected at problematic levels was metolachlor, the active ingredient in the herbicides Pennant, Dual and Bicep. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies metolachlor as a possible human carcinogen, and the chemical has also been linked to groundwater contamination problems.

Raleigh Parks Superintendent Wayne Schindler told Raleigh Eco News that his department sprayed Roundup, the active ingredient of which is glyphosate, and Pendulum, the active ingredient of which is pendimethalin. He did not mention any spraying of metolachlor, illustrating the difficulty citizens can face in getting accurate information about what chemicals are being applied to public facilities. Mr. Schindler said he could not comment until the state investigation into the matter is complete.

State authorities got involved in early March, after People for Parks Executive Director Jamie Ramsey notified Raleigh Eco News that Gardner Street Park — which last month was renamed Isabella Cannon Park after the former Raleigh mayor — had been sprayed with a yellow substance while the facility was open to the public. Some of the material was spilled on the edge of the park’s basketball court, leaving a yard-wide yellow stain on the concrete.

Raleigh has been in trouble in the past for problems in its pesticide-spraying program. Two years ago, the city received a notice of warning from state pesticide regulators about spraying a mix of glyphosate and pendimethalin in parks and along greenways. At issue was the fact that the city did not close facilities to the public during spraying, which violates label directions and thus federal and state law.

After Raleigh Eco News contacted the state Pesticide Section about the Gardner Street spraying, staff there launched an investigation that resulted in the area near the spill being tested for pesticide levels. Mulch samples contained 840 parts per million (ppm) of pendimethalin, 410 ppm of metolachlor and 20.8 ppm of glyphosate, according to state Pesticide Inspector Barry Dunn. Soil samples taken below the mulch contained 51.2 ppm of pendimethalin, 17.1 ppm of metolachlor and no glyphosate.

“The levels of pendimethalin in the soil should not be more than 4 parts per million,” said Dr. Henry Wade, pesticide and environmental program manager with the N.C. Pesticide Section. “Metolachlor should not be more than 1.9 parts per million. That’s why we ordered them to remove the soil and clean the area.”

Uncertainty Over Health Risks

Dr. Wade calculated the allowable pesticide levels by taking label information on the rate at which the chemical should be applied to an acre and adjusting for a smaller area.

“If you’ve got those high levels and you put a plant in there, you could cause injury to the plant,” he said. “It also increases the chances of contamination further down in the soil, and that could eventually move into the groundwater.”

Dr. Wade said he couldn’t comment on possible health effects in children or adults who came in contact with the contaminated mulch. In fact, no one from the Pesticide Section involved in the case could, because the section — a division of the state Department of Agriculture — does not focus on human health effects.

Mike Mitchell, pesticide operations specialist with the N.C. Pesticide Section, said that in some cases pesticide investigators involve Dr. Ken Rudo or Dr. Luanne Williams, toxicologists with the state Department of Health and Human Services. But they were not called in on this case.

Dr. Williams, however, agreed to review the test results for Raleigh Eco News. She compared the Gardner Park chemical levels to preliminary remediation goals (PRGs) set by the EPA’s Region 9 for Superfund site cleanups. PRGs are risk-based concentrations derived from equations combining exposure information assumptions with EPA toxicity data. The PRG is 2,400 ppm for pendimethalin, 6,100 ppm for glyphosate and 9,200 ppm for metolachlor.

“Based on those levels, I would not expect a child to develop health effects” as a result of the incident, said Dr. Williams.

But pesticide safety advocates question the use of PRGs to determine safe levels of exposure.

“A PRG is not a gold standard for considering health effects,” said Fawn Pattison, executive director of the nonprofit Agricultural Resources Center & Pesticide Education Project in Raleigh.

Ms. Pattison noted that PRGs vary by region and are based on exposures for rational adults who are exposed accidentally by, say, wiping a hand across their mouth. They do not take into account activities of young children in a park setting, such as sticking contaminated dirt or mulch directly in their mouths, nor do they consider the effect the chemicals might have on vulnerable individuals, such as children or adults with skin sensitivities or pre-existing health problems. Furthermore, they give no consideration to ecological effects.

“PRGs are toxicological shorthand — they don’t look at specific sites or behaviors or individual sensitivities,” Ms. Pattison said. “The bottom line is, Raleigh has an ongoing problem with its parks department misusing and overusing pesticides that it needs to address.”

Let Park Users Beware

The remediation of Gardner Park involved digging up an area of mulch and soil 25 feet long, 8 feet wide and 4 feet deep along the basketball court’s western edge. The state required the city to dig down only three feet, but it chose to go the extra foot.

Additional samples were taken at the bottom of the hole, and test results are expected some time this month. The concern is that the chemicals could migrate through the soil and into the groundwater. The park sits at the bottom of a hill and drains into a tributary of Beaver Dam Creek.

Metolachlor contamination is a problem in many watersheds across the United States. Due to repeated detection of pesticides in U.S. wells, the EPA has proposed a state management program to control or ban pesticides with the greatest potential to contaminate groundwater. It initially selected five pesticides due to the frequency of contamination; metolachlor was one of them, along with alachlor, atrazine, cyanazine and simazine. These chemicals have been detected in groundwater and surface water in many states, and they are associated with serious health effects.

Rather than disposing of the contaminated soil and mulch from Gardner Street, Raleigh plans to apply it elsewhere on its property over a wide enough area that the concentrations will remain within what the state considers to be acceptable limits. Dunn said he would photograph the area selected so Wade could ensure the material was spread out enough to avoid further problems.

The state’s investigation into the city’s pesticide spraying is continuing. The case will eventually go to the N.C. Pesticide Board for action, which could come as late as September.

In the meantime, pesticide regulators lack the authority to force the city stop spraying. But if Raleigh is found to be in violation of the law again, it could face a fine of up to $2,000 for each violation, though cases are usually settled for less. To determine the penalty, the N.C. Pesticide Board takes into consideration factors such as misuse, adverse effects on people or wildlife and repeated violations. The individual applicator or applicators involved could also face license suspension.

For Raleigh residents and visitors concerned about potential pesticide exposure as a result of the city’s spraying program, Mitchell urged the exercise of what he called “common sense.”

“If you look and see a nice, maintained park with no weeds out of place,” he said, “it’s safe to assume something’s been sprayed there.”

TAKE ACTION: Ask your town/city to adopt organic lawn care for parks and other public spaces and stop using toxic pesticides. For resource information and factsheets, see Beyond Pesticides' website special issues section on lawns and landscapes.