By Mike Weilbacher
As a child, Roxborough’s Kris Soffa remembers running through a cloud of DDT being sprayed where her family was camping in Massachusetts. “We were told it was safe,” she shared with me via telephone last week. This-- surprisingly-- was a common practice back in the day, running after mosquito control trucks to play in the dense fog of insecticides.
Then Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring,” the book that launched the environmental movement and led to America banning the “safe” DDT, as it turns out the chemical caused eggshell thinning in birds, which led to endangered and even extinct birds, the bald eagle among the former and the eastern peregrine falcon the latter.
So today, when she sees people using herbicides like the ubiquitous Roundup, you can understand that she doesn't accept the conventional wisdom that it is “safe.” And the conventional wisdom on that herbicide seems shifting as well - more on that in a moment.
Kris, long known for her activism on green and historic preservation issues, is one of the founding members of Toxic Free Philly, a new group hoping to convert the city to greener, healthier alternatives to pesticides and herbicides. For the moment, they are focusing on a new bill, the Healthy Outdoor Public Spaces (HOPS) bill, to halt the use of what they call “toxic herbicides” on publicly owned land, including city parks, playgrounds, sports fields, and rec centers. The bill will also establish “a transparent and public reporting requirement for all pesticides applied by the city or its contractors. Currently, the public is not informed what toxic pesticides are sprayed where, and in what amounts.”
Curtis Jones Jr., Roxborough’s representative on City Council, is one of the bill’s cosponsors, with Councilwoman Cindy Bass serving as lead sponsor.
“This whole process will encourage the city to stop and look at what it's doing,” Kris told me.
“Most people are actually shocked that there is no reporting on the use of the products. People should know. Taxpayers don’t know who is doing what on public land, which is managed by the Water Department, Streets, Parks and Rec. We just don't know what’s out there.”
In her work as a Trail Ambassador for Friends of the Wissahickon, people “have complained to me that there is spraying on public land, and they worry about their kids and their dogs.” She also has “so many friends with dogs struggling with different kinds of cancers,” which she links to sprayed lands.
If it passes, Philadelphia would join over 100 municipalities across the country that have prohibited or severely restricted toxic herbicides like Roundup, and New York is considering a statewide bill right now. Last year, says Toxic Free Philly, SEPTA announced all staff and contractors will halt any use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup.
“We are so happy to work with Councilmember Bass on this legislation, and that the city is responding to this other public health crisis, happening in tandem with and exacerbating COVID-19,” said Toxic Free Philly member Sadie Francis in the group’s press release. “This effort is part of our commitment to the larger environmental justice movement.” Currently, notes the same release, “the city uses at least 18 toxic herbicides on its public grounds, including glyphosate.” 2,4-D, an active ingredient in Agent Orange, infamously used during the Vietnam War, is also sprayed.
Glyphosates and especially Roundup are incredibly popular herbicides used rather indiscriminately.
For example, there is a Roundup-Ready version of soybeans - genetically engineered - that allows the plant to survive spraying. Farmers spray the entire crop; the soybeans survive while all other plants are knocked out. Trouble is, Roundup then washes into waterways and then drinking water, which is a growing concern, and it kills good plants like milkweeds, the host plant for monarch butterflies. One of the reasons monarchs are dwindling is the lack of milkweed over much of the Roundup-Ready Midwest.
While studies of its impact on human health point in different directions, there is mounting evidence linking the herbicide to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.
After juries recently awarded stunningly large verdicts to several cancer-stricken patients suing Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, its parent company, Bayer, settled a class action lawsuit this summer with a $10 billion payout. There are still thousands of cases not part of the settlement.
“With this effort,” Councilmember Cindy Bass told Toxic Free Philly, “Philadelphia takes an important step in moving toward even healthier and cleaner green spaces. This year especially, our communities are turning to their public parks, fields and playgrounds more than ever before. We must prioritize the health and safety of our communities, particularly our underserved communities.”
She plans on holding a public hearing in October. And when the hearings are convened, you know Roxborough’s Kris Soffa will be in the front row, fighting the good fight, as she has done for decades.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at email@example.com.