Parks and city green spaces and school grounds are safe, pleasant and healthy places, right? Perhaps not, if they are sprayed with dangerous pesticides and herbicides.

Cities are gradually waking up to the idea that they may be putting their populations at risk by using these chemical-containing pesticides and herbicides. Some of them are already receiving demands that they refrain from their use, replacing them with healthy alternatives.

Last month, Ségolène Royal, the French Minister of Ecology, appeared on television to ask that "all mayors remove pesticides in parks and schools", following the appearance of scientific doubts about the safety of these substances. This week, on May 22, World Biodiversity Day, she is to launch a campaign called "cities and villages without pesticides", under which schools are being asked to ban their use and convert to organic growing.

Poster: ban poisonous herbicides and pesticides from parksIn the UK activist and fashion designer Katharine Hamnett is launching a similar campaign (see poster, right). She last week astounded audiences on the beach at Cannes Film Festival with her appearance alongside Pamela Anderson launching a charity to protect animals from abuse when she delivered a tirade against global capitalism accusing its short-term economics of causing climate change.

But back to the herbicides and chemicals. For Hamnett, the product in question is Monsanto's 'Roundup'.

She discovered that it was being sprayed indiscriminately, unnecessarily and unannounced in her local park, London Fields, Hackney in London. She says she became "horrified at the prospect of even one more of many hundreds of young picnickers sitting on the grass near the sprayed area and eating with their hands - no faster route to ingesting the product apart from drinking it directly from the bottle".

She is organising this week a public meeting about the dangers of the herbicide and how to get it banned, pointing out that the European Union has classified it as "dangerous for the environment", although I can't find doirect evidence for this. The campaign is joined by Tony Juniper, ex-director of Friends of the Earth, and the Director of Pesticide Action Network UK, Keith Tyrell.

In this particular instance a wildflower meadow was being sprayed in preparation for planting, a practice described by Peter Melchett, chairman of the widely respected Soil Association, which campaigns for organic growing, as "completely unnecessary: all you need to do to prepare a wildflower meadow is plough the area".

Monsanto is also the target of a worldwide March against Monsanto next Saturday, May 24, not just against its pesticides but against its stance on genetically modified organisms, which it manufactures to be resistant to its own herbicide.

What are the potential problems with this herbicide?

Roundup and similar products have been in widespread use since the 1990s but their use has been increasing due to the spread of GM of crops which are resistant to the herbicide. This has led to calls from the Rapporteur of the Environmental Directorate of the European Union for the substance to be put on a "watch list" of suspect substances which reach into water supplies.

Emily Marquez of The Pesticide Action Network says there is a "growing body of evidence examining links to human health effects that raises some concern". Many of these are not yet fully understood, but she says that as a scientist she believes we should be paying by careful attention. In particular she points to:

  • evidence that the substance can activate the wastage and receptor in breast cancer cell line and therefore mimic the function of that hormone;
  • lead to stress on liver enzymes which can lead to the production of toxic compounds, and/or reduce the body's ability to detoxify itself;
  • lead to various other damaging developmental effects on biological cells of organisms.

A further report by Friends of the Earth questions whether it is an endocrine disruptor, as noted on the pesticide info database, meaning that it is potentially harmful to reproduction and other hormone-related activities in the body, and contains a long list of other environmental dangers.

France bans pesticides and herbicides

But Roundup is only one product and there is a bigger story here. Last week the French group Generations Futures announced findings from a small biomonitoring study of children living and learning near agricultural fields. Eighty percent of the children tested had been exposed to agricultural pesticides in the previous three months.

Researchers took hair samples from 30 children living or attending school within a 1/10 of a mile of agricultural areas. Analysis of the samples found “traces of 53 pesticides believed to affect the hormone system of mammals, leading to cancerous tumors, birth defects, developmental disorders and learning disabilities in humans.”

It led the organisation to write an open letter to Ségolène Royal, Minister of Ecology, asking that she go further on Thursday than asking mayors throughout France to ban the use of pesticides in parks and near to schools, but to end the use of it everywhere near human habitation, and to promote 100% organic growing methods in parks, green spaces and school grounds.

California's groundbreaking report

All of this follows a groundbreaking report from California's Department of Public Health (DPH) released in April, documenting pesticide use near schools. This is what really changes the game.

State officials found over 500,000 lbs of hazardous pesticides used within ¼ mile of California schools, putting more than 500,000 children in harm’s way. Similar to the France study many of the pesticides used near California schools are known to cause cancer and brain and nervous system damage.

It assessed 2,511 schools in the top 15 counties by agricultural pesticide use in California for 2010. it was looking not just at the prevalence of glyphosate but many substances and found in the top 10 most prevalent chemicals, the top five were restricted materials and one of the bottom five was. This chemical was paraquat, a highly persistent chemical. Fumigants were often used to apply the chemicals, which are more prone to drift and have a higher rate of usage on a pounds per acre basis.

Most of these are carcinogens and the survey found that Monterey County had the highest percentage of schools (16.8%) potentially exposed to their dangers. Some of them are reproductive toxicants, which may impact the reproductive health of women or men and hinder the ability of couples to have healthy children. It is this feature which is of particular concern to Katharine Hamnett.

Other chemicals in these groups are cholinesterase inhibitors, that block the normal breakdown of an important chemical in the body — acetylcholine — that regulates nerve cell activity.

All these chemicals are also classified in California as Toxic Air Contaminants and Hazardous Air Pollutants which can cause contribute to an increase in mortality and have serious potential hazard to human health such as cancer, birth defects, and effects on the immune, nervous or respiratory systems.

Knowledge about many of these chemicals is evolving as we strive to understand their toxicological properties, exposure pathways, health effects and other effects on the wider environment, whether individually or acting together or in combination with other chemicals released into the environment.

This important report from the Californian public health department lists the following chemicals as priorities for assessment and monitoring:

  • Chloropicrin
  • 1,3-Dichloropropene
  • Methyl bromide
  • Metam-sodium
  • Potassium n-methyldithiocarbamate
  • Captan
  • Pendimethalin
  • Chlorpyrifos
  • Paraquat dichloride
  • Malathion.

Many companies besides Monsanto manufacture products containing glyphosates and these chemicals. To defend themselves against the accusations of campaigners they have formed a European Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), and created what they call a Glyphosate Information Portal to present their side of the story on this particular chemical.

In the interests of the precautionary principle it seems essential that authorities everywhere at least review the situation regarding the use of all these chemicals. Do they even know if they are being used within their jurisdiction? How much? Where? What are the alternatives?

Following the lead of France, California and Katharine Hamnett in London, city park and school authorities and mayors everywhere should be asking themselves whether it is worth continuing to use them, especially around children and people of reproductive age, when perfectly good alternatives are available.

Besides, in principle, isn't organic growing more sustainable?