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A common but controversial herbicide is used on school grounds across Pennsylvania to kill weeds. But a group of concerned parents and others in Pittsburgh are raising questions about its use. 

LISTEN: “Hundreds of Parents Petition Pittsburgh Public Schools to Stop Herbicide Spraying”

One parent is Lisa McDonald. She and her 7-year-old son Finn spend most weekends playing on the playground at Pittsburgh Montessori, a magnet school in the Pittsburgh school district. Finn likes to play basketball, ride bikes and maybe pick a few things from the school garden. 

Finn McDonald (7) stands in the learning garden at Pittsburgh Montessori where he’s also a student. The garden is maintained by Grow Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Public Schools says school learning gardens are not sprayed with pesticides. Photo: Lisa McDonald

But on a recent visit in early August, Lisa and Finn noticed something that caused them to make other plans. It was a notice zip-tied to a fence saying that glyphosate would be sprayed on the school property. The exact date of the application wasn’t legible. All of the boxes on the sign were checked indicating where the herbicide would be sprayed: playground, flower beds, lawn, trees, parking lots, sidewalks and fence line.

“I actually have a picture of the sign because it bothered me so deeply,” said McDonald. 

The notice also warns people to stay away for several hours, but the exact times aren’t clear. State law requires school districts to post signage at least three days before and two days after each planned treatment in “an area of common access where individuals are likely to view the sign.” 

“What bothered me even more is that it occurred to me that there were five other entrances accessible to the public and none of those had signage posted” said McDonald. 

Pittsburgh Public Schools says only fence lines and cracks are sprayed with glyphosate, but this sign shows that many other areas were going to be sprayed. Spraying never occurred because of rain. Photo provided by Lisa McDonald.

“Probably Carcinogenic”

Glyphosate is the most widely used weed killer in the country. Research links it to cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s determined that it was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” And California has included the herbicide in its Proposition 65, a listing of chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. 

The U.S. EPA disagrees. In a review process last April, the agency ruled that it does not pose any public health risk when used as directed. But a month before, a federal jury ordered Monsanto, which makes the chemical, to pay a school groundskeeper in California $80 million in damages, after finding that Roundup, the brand name for the product, was a “substantial factor” in causing his cancer. Thousands of similar cases are pending at the federal and state level. 

School District Responds

Ebony Pugh, a spokesperson for Pittsburgh Public Schools, says the district has two employees, certified by the state, who monitor how and where glyphosate is sprayed in the district. The district also has a plan to minimize the use of pesticides. 

“We only use the product in the summer and it’s not widely used,” explained Pugh. “It’s only used in roughly half the buildings that we have and we never do it when a building is in use; we’ll do it before students come back.” 

According to Pugh, the herbicide was never used at Pittsburgh Montessori because of rain. But the posted notice was enough to get many parents and neighbors concerned.

Catherine Trover has three kids in Pittsburgh Public Schools, all of whom like to play in the dirt. 

“My children run here barefoot,” she said. “They’re rolling on the ground; they are eating things here. And there’s a dangerous chemical banned in a number of other countries.” 

Popular Weed Killer Linked to Health Problems

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis works for advocacy group, Healthy Schools PA which provides guidance to parents and schools about health hazards including pesticide usage at schools. She says parents are right to be concerned. 

“We know that glyphosate actually adsorbs to the soil, so it binds to it,” she said. “So if the kid is playing in soil and putting it into their mouth in any way shape or form, they are certainly exposing themselves.” 

Earlier this year the Federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry released a toxicological profile for glyphosate which states that exposure to the chemical can occur via inhalation, dermal contact or eye contact. 

“In this profile, there is a whole element related to the public health risk,” said Naccarati-Chapkis. “So we know that some federal agencies are paying attention to this and providing some guidance in it as well.”

And Naccarati-Chapkis points to new research showing that exposure can lead to the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease which can lead to cancer and liver failure. There are also recent studies linking to exposure to kidney and gastrointestinal problems, as well as reproductive harm. 

Children run in the grassy area outside of Pittsburgh Montessori in Friendship. Photo: Andy Kubis

Parents Push Back

At a recent back to school night at Pittsburgh Montessori, word spread among parents about the suspected use of the chemical. Sean Carroll has a kindergartener at the school.

“Weed control can be done physically, not through chemicals,” he said. “Not just at school but throughout the world, right? So am I against spraying in our school, sure. I am against spraying anywhere. This particular chemical seems pretty bad in general so why are we spraying it?” 

Trover, Carrol and McDonald are three of more than 700 people who have signed an online petition asking Pittsburgh Public Schools to stop using glyphosate. Spokesperson Ebony Pugh says the district has tried other treatments like vinegar solutions but with “limited success.”  But Pugh says they are listening to parents and considering discontinuing the use of glyphosate. 

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Learn More PA state laws surrounding pesticide use on school grounds, and how you can take action as a parent, teacher, school administrator, or concerned community member HERE.