Applying Roundup to lawns around campus did not violate EPA regulations, but some European countries have banned the product over health concerns. | Photo by Dylan Reid

California’s drought has prompted Governor Jerry Brown’s office to require mandatory water cutbacks. At Cal Poly, this has meant coming up with a variety of water-saving measures such as installing drip irrigation in place of sprinklers, reducing the size of green lawns around campus and installing low-flow faucets.

But one such measure — the spraying of the herbicide Roundup, which has been banned in more than 10 countries — has drawn concerns from health officials, staff and faculty.

Water-saving measures

The first order of business after receiving the governor’s mandate in April was to come up with a Drought Response Plan (DRP). The 16-page document envisioned by 14 campus staff and faculty members concluded that immediate measures needed to be taken to reduce water use on campus.

Landscape manager Ron Hostick, who has been with Cal Poly for the past year and helped write the DRP, said the state’s overall water reduction goal of 25 percent was “reasonable.”

On a campus often portrayed as lush and green in promotional materials, reducing water by one-fourth without affecting the campus aesthetic meant combining a number of water-reducing tactics.

As mentioned in a previous Mustang News article, Cal Poly is in the process of changing irrigation practices to be “smarter,” installing low-flow water mechanisms across campus and reducing the amount of overall green lawns by 28 percent over the next five years. This last method has raised eyebrows around campus and led some to question why Cal Poly is using a controversial herbicide to reduce the amount of green acreage on campus.

In 2007, the Cal Poly campus contained a total of 56.5 acres of green turf. Since then, facilities personnel have removed 8.18 acres and plan on removing another 13.6 acres as part of the DRP.

“Lawns have a really bad rep,” Hostick said. “The public perceives lawns as a waste of water and rather than try and reframe public opinion, it’s easier to try and go along with it.”

This means replacing turf with alternative ground covers such as mulch, wood chips and other climate-appropriate landscaping. In order to do so, the existing warm season grass on campus needed to be completely eradicated, Hostick said. This is where Roundup comes in.

“Warm season grass can be one of the most difficult weeds when it’s in the wrong location to try and control. And we can control it now with much less toxic chemicals (i.e. Roundup) than we would have to use if we planted into it … then we’d have to go to another level of herbicide,” Hostick said.

How the green turned ‘gold’

The Drought Response Plan includes the use of herbicides, but no specific details about the herbicide that would be used, or possible concerns were mentioned. Director of Facilities Operations and DRP co-author Scott Loosley confirmed a mixture of Roundup and Turflon was sprayed on the turf to be removed.

Turflon is another popular weedkiller with the active ingredient triclopyr — a federally registered Restricted Use Pesticide — which is a suspected kidney toxicant.

Loosley said that other methods, such as tarping over grass to kill it or removing dry turf with a tractor, “may be reasonable for a small residential yard, (but) it is not a practical approach for our campus drought plan turf reduction.”

“We are eliminating 14 acres of turf on campus and the cost for material, labor and the limited efficacy made a herbicide application the most cost effective approach,” Loosley said.

Hostick, Cal Poly’s landscape manager, said Roundup is not especially harmful to humans.

“I think there’s really good long-term data out there saying that Roundup is not particularly dangerous,” he said. “There is no chemical or chemistry that is 100 percent not going to do any damage to anybody. But I think Roundup is probably well up on the list of things that are not particularly dangerous to people.”

But Roundup was under fire by the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Cancer Society and the Centre for Research on Globalization for its detrimental environmental effects and potential harm to humans. In fact, more than 10 countries, including the Netherlands and France, have completely banned the product. The WHO released a statement in March saying glyphosate, the active ingredient used in Roundup, “probably causes cancer.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), sponsored by WHO, has said that glyphosate was “classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.” The chemical can also be found on the American Cancer Society’s list of known and probable human carcinogens with exposure effects ranging from respiratory illness to birth defects.

Cal Poly Health physician Dr. Greg Thomas sent an email to Facilities and faculty members claiming that a staff member was experiencing respiratory problems. Thomas was concerned enough to file a report with campus Environmental Health and Safety.

“This was being sprayed on the grass outside the Health Center to kill the grass this morning!? One staff member had wheezing/tightness in (their) throat,” Thomas wrote in his letter. “Why not just stop watering the grass and let it die off naturally?”

Thomas was not available for comment. David Ragsdale, the director of Environmental Health and Safety, confirmed that their office received a phone call from someone at the Health Center on the morning of June 4, expressing concern about spraying Roundup on the grass. Since it was a phone call, there was no written record. Thomas copied him on the email sent to Facilities later that day, Ragsdale said.

Cal Poly, however, did take all appropriate measures to ensure safety when dispensing and disposing of the Roundup, Ragsdale said.

“Applications of Roundup were made according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved label instructions by a qualified applicator licensed by the State of California,” Ragsdale said. “All areas were barricaded to exclude contact during and after spraying.”

Dr. Kelly McKerahan, a family physician who has been practicing medicine more than 20 years, explains the link between glyphosate and cancer. Glyphosate inhibits cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes, a large and diverse group of enzymes that activate the oxidation of organic substances. By limiting the ability of these enzymes to detoxify foreign chemicals, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of chemicals and environmental toxins people may be exposed to.

“The chemicals that are in Roundup and other herbicides and pesticides will target a certain enzyme. Unfortunately, sometimes those materials will not only interfere with the enzymes, but can insert themselves into our DNA,” McKerahan said. “Just because they are legal to use does not mean they are relatively safe.”

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