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Parents urge Denver schools to end herbicide use

A group of eco-conscious parents on Monday asked members of the Denver school board to rethink the district’s policy of spraying chemical herbicides on school lawns and to instead use less toxic means of killing weeds.

“I ask you to immediately stop the use of harmful chemicals. There are effective non-harmful chemicals available. We request a fresh start,” said Jennifer Draper Carson, whose son, a second-grader at Edison Elementary, suffers from asthma.

“Every student who runs on the Edison lawn is potentially vulnerable.”

Carson, who has announced she is running for the Denver school board in this November’s election, is a member of the Green Team at Edison. That group has been actively promoting composting, recycling and other green initiatives at the northwest Denver school.

Parents complain about ‘fog of chemicals’

The herbicide issue arose earlier this year when some Edison parents complained that they had been standing outside the school when they were suddenly surrounded by a chemical fog.

“The incident occurred while I was at the school,” said Melissa Knopper, a science writer who taught an after-school creative writing class at Edison. “I was leading my kids out of the school about 5 p.m. The door was locked, so the parents had been standing outside waiting. I opened the door and thought I smelled bug spray. There were parents standing there with toddlers, gasping for breath. They said someone had been spraying the field while the kids were playing soccer.”

Upon investigation, Knopper learned that TruGreen technicians had applied a herbicide containing the chemical 2,4-D to the Edison playing field. 2,4-D is the most widely used herbicide in the world, but its use is controversial. Toxicologists are divided about its potential to harm human health, and while the Environmental Protection Agency has approved its use in this country, it has been banned or restricted in a number of other countries.

But Jennifer Wolf, a former chemist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the mother of an Edison third-grader, warned the board that EPA warning labels are based on risk to an adult male.

“That doesn’t take into account the increased risk to children,” she said.

State laws met, state oversight cited

Unlike many states, Colorado law does not prohibit the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides on school property. State law simply requires notices to be posted if such chemicals have been applied.

But many parents don’t think that’s good enough. When the Edison Green Team posted an online petition asking DPS to seek safer options, nearly 1,000 people signed.

The school district’s contract with TruGreen expires on July 1. School officials say they’re happy to ask TruGreen or others interested in submitting a bid to do weed control by other means, but they want to make sure those other means are effective.

“Typically, those chemicals aren’t toxic unless you use them inappropriately, and we have no reason to believe TruGreen wasn’t using them appropriately,” said Trena Deane, executive director of facilities management for DPS. Interviewed last week, Deane said, “We met with TruGreen, and the way they apply the product typically should not create a wave or a fog.”

On the day in question, winds were calm and the herbicide was applied after hours, further decreasing the chances of unhealthy exposure.

Kristen Fefes, representing a number of lawn care companies across the state, acknowledged concerns about the use of pesticides. But she said the industry is strictly regulated by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and technicians take serious precautions to avoid inappropriate use of chemicals.

“Any company spraying pesticide in the environment must pass strenuous tests just to stay licensed,” she said. She said DPS, along with many other school districts, has embraced a concept of “integrated pest management,” a process in which multiple methods are employed to suppress and control pests, including weeds.

“We’re here tonight to offer our help to the district and any schools in it with a better solution,” Fefes said. “Our members are willing to work with your facilities management to help you find solutions.”

Both sides offer to work toward solution

That’s the same offer the Green Team parents made.

“This is not an easy task for an overnight fix,” said Nicole Bauman, another parent representative. “But a lot of places have eliminated pesticide use. We’d like to offer our support in making this happen.”

DPS officials have acknowledged they don’t know exactly what happened that day at Edison Elementary. And they certainly don’t want to discourage parents from suggesting better ways to make schools less toxic.

Deane said she’s investigating what other school districts use and if equally effective but less toxic substances can be found at a reasonable cost, the district would move in that direction.

The school board took no action on Monday, but simply listened to public comment.

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