Despite a local law that bans New York City from using pesticides linked to cancer, city agencies apply thousands of pounds of these substances each year.
When Local Law 37 passed in 2005, environmental groups like Beyond Pesticides praised the city for being at the forefront of national efforts to curb pesticides.
And in its annual pesticide reports, the city suggests the legislation has been successful, declaring that as of May 2006, “use of all pesticides classified by the EPA as possible, probable or known human carcinogens ended.”
In November that year, the report continues, the city eliminated pesticides classified as developmental toxins by the State of California – also prohibited under Local Law 37. Finally, EPA Toxicity Category 1 pesticides were prohibited as of November 2005.
But the same reports show that eight years later, a swath of exemptions carved out in the law have freed city agencies and their contractors to continue applying thousands of pounds of these substances each year.
In 2013, the latest year for which data has been released, the city applied 25,000 pounds of solid pesticides that constituted Local Law 37 exemptions, accounting for almost a quarter of the total 111,000 pounds of solid pesticides reported in the latest report. In addition, 1,900 gallons of exempted liquid pesticides were applied, representing over a quarter of total liquids used. Reports dating back to 2007 reveal similar patterns. Despite a trend of decreasing pesticide use by city agencies since reporting began, these prohibited classes do not appear to be declining.
Golf courses a frequent target
Prohibited substances do not include Roundup, the subject of recent intensified scrutiny when earlier this year, the World Health Organization declared Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, to be “probably” carcinogenic to humans. However, the EPA has not designated glyphosate to be carcinogenic nor highly toxic, so its use does not currently require an exemption under Local Law 37. In 2013, the city applied 830 gallons of glyphosate-based products, the majority by the Department of Parks and Recreation
Exempted pesticides do include, however, products containing chlorothalonil, a fungicide listed as a “likely” human carcinogen by the EPA. Chlorothalonil has been found to increase the rate of adenomas and carcinomas in rats and mice.
In 2013, the latest year for which data has been released, the Parks Department reported using 6,150 pounds of chlorothalonil-based pesticides, in line with amounts reported in previous years.
The annual reports do not specify the purpose and location of each application, and the Parks Department did not respond to a request for comment. However, the most common target for fungicides were golf courses, according to the 2013 report.
Indeed, the bulk of the chlorothalonil-containing applications were of Andersons Turf Fungicide with 5.0% Daconil (a brand name for chlorothalonil), which is recommended for use on golf courses, athletic fields, cemeteries and parks. The manufacturer warns consumers, however, not to use the product on home lawns, or turf next to daycares or schools.
Despite being deemed a likely carcinogen, chlorothalonil can be applied on golf courses because under Local Law 37 courses are granted a blanket exemption.
That’s not unusual, says Laura Haight, a former a senior environmental associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) who helped advance Local Law 37. She notes that golf courses are routinely exempt from pesticide laws. “They’re incredibly toxic,” she adds.
Also exempt under the law are professional athletic fields, and swimming pools where pesticides are used to “maintain water quality.”
As is often the case with pesticides, although nearly 4,000 pounds of Anderson’s Turf Fungicide were applied, the product’s active ingredient chlorothalonil accounts for only a small proportion—5 percent—of the formulation:. The rest consists of undisclosed “other” ingredients, also known as “inert” ingredients.
Despite being referred to as “inert,” a term the EPA has acknowledged is misleading to consumers, these ingredients can themselves be toxic or possibly carcinogenic, and can enhance the toxicity of the active ingredient. Manufacturers are only legally required to reveal the active ingredients, however.
Health Dept. can grant exemptions
Where a blanket exemption has not been issued, an agency can be cleared to use a pesticide by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
For example, Anvil 10+10, the insecticide used in the annual West Nile Virus spraying, contains piperonyl butoxide, which is listed as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA. Every year since the law came into effect, the Health Department has granted its Office of Vector Surveillance and Control a waiver for “temporary relief from the prohibition on the use of pesticides that may otherwise be prohibited from use on New York City property.”
In an August 8th press release, the No Spray Coalition criticized the Health Department for granting waivers to itself. “No other agency reviews its application. The checks and balances envisioned in Local Law 37 are thus thwarted,” they wrote.
Other pesticides are exempted under city-wide waivers each year. For example, insecticide gels containing fipronil and hydramethylnon both classified as possible human carcinogens by the EPA, are under regular use by NYCHA, which laid down 150 pounds of fipronil-based products across 3,400 applications and 110 pounds of hydramethylnon products across 95 applications.
In the annual waiver letter, Daniel Kass, the Health Department’s deputy commissioner of environmental health, notes that these products are of minimal risk to human health because they can be “used in a targeted manner that limits the likelihood of human exposure.” Likewise, Haight notes that these products are typically enclosed within bait containers.
Fears can be overblown
Possible carcinogens, or even likely carcinogens, might not be cause for concern where exposure is minimal. Anvil, for example, is applied at 0.0034 pounds per acre, Levi Fishman, deputy press secretary at the Health Department, explained in an email earlier this year.
“When properly used, this product poses no significant risks to human health. It degrades rapidly in sunlight, provides little or no residual activity, and does not accumulate in the environment,” he wrote. Nonetheless, the city advises residents to bring children’s toys, outdoor equipment, and clothing indoors before spraying takes place, and to wash anything that has come in contact with Anvil.
Activists like Cathryn Swan of the No Spray coalition aren’t convinced that Anvil degrades as readily as the city assures. The pesticide can, for instance, linger longer in the soil or in areas shaded from sunlight. In soil, the half-life of sumithrin is 1-2 days, meaning it would degrade almost entirely in 5-10 days, but potentially linger much longer in bodies of water, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. No Spray has also expressed concern about potential ecological impacts on bees and aquatic organisms. Local Law 37, however, focuses exclusively on human health impacts..
Even where rates of exposure are greater than anticipated, a possible human carcinogen is not necessarily carcinogenic. The “possible” designation is applied when there is some limited evidence of carcinogenicity. For piperonyl butoxide, lab results have been mixed, with some studies finding cancer-causing at very high doses and others not finding an effect.
However, a pesticide’s risk classification can be a matter of dispute.
Dr. Brian Dementi, formerly a senior toxicologist at the E.P.A., was the lead scientist in charge of evaluating the safety of malathion, the pesticide New York City used before switching to Anvil.
In an independent scientific advisory panel in 2000, Dementi testified that malathion should be classified as a “likely” carcinogen. But in the end, the agency rejected his conclusion, arguing that the insecticide was safe if properly used, and decided to designate malathion as having “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity”– a lower risk classification.
When the West Nile outbreak first hit New York, and the Health Department was spraying malathion by helicopter, Dementi was conflicted, but ultimately believes the justification for using any given pesticide comes down to a risk-benefit calculation.
“It did indeed bother me,” he says. “But on the other hand, it was preventing encephalitis. One always has to consider the risk assessment… Is there greater risk of not doing it? You’ve always got to discern. It’s a hard thing balancing risk versus benefit.”
Though fewer than 1 percent of those infected develop severe symptoms, West Nile can cause neurological damage and death, according to the Center for Disease Control. Since 1999, there have been 317 cases of symptomatic West Nile infection reported in New York City, 38 of them fatal, according to the Health Department, a rate of under one case per 100,000 people.
Advocate: Notification is key
Despite the Local Law 37 exemptions, Haight, who worked closely with the Health Department on curbing pesticide use during her years at NYPIRG, says she is proud of the law.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect law. All laws are developed with compromises,” she says, adding that she believes the Health Department has acted in good faith to reduce pesticide use and minimize risks. “We worked with a lot of places that passed laws, but no one’s been as vested.”
“The law should be stronger,” says Joel Kupferman, executive director and senior attorney at the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. Its major weakness, he argues, is that exemptions are granted at the city level. Instead, requests for exemptions should be evaluated at the state or federal level, instead of by the city, Kupferman says. In addition, he believes that agencies offer inadequate, or insufficiently transparent, reporting on adverse effects.
Though New York City and activists might not see eye-to-eye on pesticide risks and classifications, Swan is asking the city to at least better inform residents.
“We’re basically saying you if you are going to do it, at least be giving people proper notification,” she says.
In April, Swan attended meeting of Brooklyn Community Board 7, where a Health Department representative had been invited to talk about the upcoming West Nile Virus spraying. A resident who had signed up for Notify NYC email alerts complained that she sometimes received notice after the spraying had happened. Jeremy Laufer, the district manager, added that 24 hours notice was not enough, and said that the administration relied too much on email, rather than physical notices—a problem for a community where many households don’t have internet access.
Others in attendance wanted to know how dangerous these substances are, whether they were carcinogenic and whether they build up in the environment. The representative, who had only been on the job for three weeks at that point, wasn’t sure of the answers.
The Health Department has not responded to a request for comment about Local Law 37.
COMMENTS FROM MITCHEL COHEN:
Thank you Elah Feder and City Limits for raising the important issue of the NY City’s Department of Health granting to itself waivers from the City’s program to limit the use of toxic pesticides in the City.
The No Spray Coalition, which had won a lawsuit against the City government in federal court in 2005 and achieved a settlement agreement two years later, continues to be appalled by the City government’s annual aerial and truck spraying of pesticides in Staten Island and Queens.
Areas of New Jersey are also being widely sprayed.
All mass spraying of pyrethroid and organophosphate pesticides are dangerous to human health (especially to children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems), as well as to pets, fish, and other animals. The spraying must be halted immediately.
Every year, the NYC DOH grants itself waivers from New York City Local Law 37, a law passed in 2005 in response to growing concerns over the health and environmental consequences of mass-spraying of Malathion (and other organophosphates) and Anvil 10+10 (and other pyrethroids, especially those containing the carcinogen Piperonyl Butoxide).
Only through application and granting of such waivers is the Department of Health enabled to legally conduct the pesticides spraying.
But the NYC DOH is circumventing the law. It applies for a waiver to itself, and then it grants itself pro forma the right and authority to spray deadly pesticides in NYC. No other agency reviews its application. The checks and balances envisioned in Local Law 37 are thus thwarted, as Elah Feder points out in her article here.
This year’s spray of choice is, once again, Anvil 10+10. It is listed in Local Law 37 as containing piperonyl butoxide and MGK-284. These are “synergists” in Anvil 10+10, and both of these chemicals are classified as possible human carcinogens by the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs. Most products containing pyrethroids continue to be prohibited under LL37.
Local Law 37 prohibits the use of pesticides by NYC in public places if it contains PBO and/or MGK-264. Why are they violating their own law?
The No Spray Coalition details the reasons for vacating NYC DOH’s waivers as follows:
– The City has illegally circumvented Local Law 37’s attempt to protect against health and environmental dangers;
– The City has entered into a multi-year pattern that misinterprets and misuses the laws forbidding spraying of toxic pesticides on City lands;
– The City has failed to abide by its own admissions in the Settlement Agreement with the No Spray Coalition et al. in 2007, review the latest scientific research, and participate in discussions with the No Spray Coalition in good faith;
– The City has failed to evaluate the “public health threat” from pesticide spraying as well as West Nile virus. There has been no Environmental Impact Statement in the last 15 years on which to examine the effects of the spraying;
– There have been no public hearings in contradiction to the requirements in Local Law 37 and other regulations;
– The City has repeatedly failed to properly notify the public before spraying pesticides, in violation of Local Law 37 and other regulations, and in violation of the Settlement Agreement;
– The City has failed to seriously utilize safer alternatives to pesticide spraying;
– The City has failed to respond in a timely fashion to important questions and concerns from NY
Assembly member William Colton, and others;
– The City is illegally spraying toxic pesticides on the people and environment of New York.
“After years of litigation to stop this reckless spraying of pesticides which has contributed to skyrocketing increases in cancer and asthma, and now the collapse of bee colonies in the New York area, I am outraged that the New York City government is renewing its mindless criminal poisoning of the people and environment of our City,” said Howard Brandstein, coordinator of SOS-FOOD, NY State Against Genetic Engineering, and a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit brought in 2000 by the No Spray Coalition and other organizations against the New York City government’s pesticide-spraying campaign.
That lawsuit ended in April 2007 when NYC signed a settlement agreement acknowledging, among other stipulations, that pesticides:
a) may remain in the environment beyond their intended purpose
b) cause adverse health effects
c) kill mosquitoes’ natural predators (such as dragonflies, bats, frogs, birds)
d) increase mosquitoes’ resistance to the sprays, and
e) are not presently approved for direct application to waterways.
The Department of Health contravenes that settlement by now stating that there are no significant risks of adverse impact to human health associated with the proper use of this product. That is simply a baldfaced lie.
In fact, the spraying puts many New York City residents and visitors at grave risk. “These kind of ignorant and lying politicians and bureaucrats apparently have no problem destroying our health in order to ‘save’ us from the so-called West Nile virus,” Howard Brandstein added.
“Clearly, the spraying jeopardizes a thousand times more people than the disease.”
The pesticide the City is spraying — “Anvil 10 + 10 — belongs to a class of adulticides known as pyrethroids, which are endocrine disruptors. They mimic hormones such as estrogen, and may cause breast cancer in women and drastically lower sperm counts in men. Pyrethroids have also been associated with prostate cancer, miscarriages and preterm delivery, asthma, toxicity to many vital organs including the nervous system, liver, kidneys and the gastro-intestinal tract, skin rashes, itching and blisters, and nausea and vomiting.
Anvil contains the cancer-causing chemical piperonyl butoxide, which the Environmental Protection Agency lists as a suspected carcinogen. It also contains Sumithrin — a synthetic toxin (NOT a naturally occurring pyrethrin), made in the laboratory — as well as benzene-related chemicals (which the label calls “inert ingredients.”)
Thousands of New Yorkers are severely sickened by the spraying every year, but they go unrecorded and unreported. Several members of the No Spray Coalition, including two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, died from pesticide-related illnesses. Many suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) or Asthma
caused or exacerbated by the spraying.
The City administration must be made to understand that pesticides are extremely dangerous to human health as well as to the natural environment, and have long-term consequences.
The No Spray Coalition strongly urges the City to stop pesticide spraying immediately, reconsider its entire approach, and seek alternative, safe means to control mosquitoes. There are natural, safe ways for each person to ward off mosquitoes. The City should not be poisoning the entire population.
We call on the Mayor and City Council to hold the DOH in violation of the intent of Local Law 37 and other laws, and of the Court-mandated “Settlement Agreement” with the No Spray Coalition, et al., and urge City officials to stop the spraying NOW. Please protect the residents and visitors to New York and the natural environment from the extremely dangerous, unnecessary, ineffective and illegal mass spraying of toxic pesticides.
Stop spraying now. Stop poisoning people, animals and the environment.
Coordinator, No Spray Coalition