Despite some confusion in this new article that came out yesterday in
City Limits -- quoting Laura Haight's acceptance of rat-poison
pellets, for example, as though she was talking in favor of the
mass-spraying of adulticides -- this is the first time that a
significant journal in New York City focuses on the Health Department's
thwarting of NYC Local Law 37's intentions. And that is a very
important step forward in our fight against the spraying of toxins to
kill mosquitoes and the government's consequent poisoning of New Yorkers,
our pets, and wildlife.
- Mitchel Cohen
City Still Using Pesticides Despite 2005
Law Banning ThemBy Elah Feder
- "Anvil 10+10, the insecticide used in the annual West Nile
Virus spraying, contains piperonyl butoxide, is listed as a possible
human carcinogen by the EPA. But West Nile carries its own risk. The city
must balance the two."
- JJ Harrison
Despite a local law that bans New York City from using pesticides linked
to cancer, city agencies apply thousands of pounds of these substances
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
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.
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
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
Despite being deemed a likely carcinogen, chlorothalonil can be applied
on golf courses because under Local Law 37 courses are granted a blanket
That’s not unusual, [Laura] Haight says, adding 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 proportion5 percentof 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
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,
Laura Haight, a former a senior environmental associate at the New York
Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) who helped advance Local Law 37,
notes that these products are typically enclosed within bait
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
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
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
"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 noticesa
problem for a community where many households don’t have internet
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.