Local residents are concerned that Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation is poisoning Kapiolani Park by spraying a controversial herbicide called Roundup around trees and under picnic tables.

“It’s bad to be spraying that stuff, especially with children running around barefoot,” said Mary Lou Sanelli, a local resident who said that she noticed patches of yellow grass in the park.

Roundup contains a chemical called glyphosate, which is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the chemical has been the subject of international debate, and a recent report by European scientists charges that regulators have covered up glyphosate’s potential to cause birth defects. Glyphosate’s use has also been sharply curtailed in cities such as Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, Civil Beat has found.

Honolulu’s Parks and Recreation Department confirmed that they have used Roundup for 28 years and said that it’s used to control vegetation and to save on labor costs.

Jim Fulton, a spokesman for the mayor, responded to Civil Beat on behalf of the department.

“Round Up is a commonly available product and used throughout the State of Hawaii, both on public and private property,” he wrote in an email.

When asked if the department takes precautions when spraying, he responded: “DPR follows the instructions on the label of the herbicide.”

“DPR believes it is using it safely,” he said. The department did not specify where the weed killer is used.

Sanelli said that the Kapiolani park manager confirmed to her the use of the weed killer. She said she had filed formal complaints with the governor and mayor. Civil Beat received an email petition from other local residents who have notified the parks department of their concerns.

Other Islands Use Roundup, Too

Roundup is also used on the Big Island, according to Clayton Honma, deputy director of the County of Hawaii Department of Parks and Recreation. Honma described Roundup as a “mild herbicide to kill noxious weeds,” and that a distance of at least 40 feet was kept between spray zones and bodies of water. He said that the weed killer had been used for years.

On Kauai, Roundup is occasionally used along fence lines, tree wells and park edges, according to Lenny Rapazo, the county’s director of parks and recreation. He said that budget constraints prevent the county from eliminating pesticides altogether, but that the parks department tried to minimize them as best they could.

The active ingredient, glyphosate, was introduced in the 1970s by Monsanto, and was patented under the Roundup name. The patent for the brand has since expired and its used in other weed killer formations, some of which are reportedly less toxic than Roundup.

Concerns from a range of consumer and environmental organizations, such as the Institute of Science on Society, have plagued the chemical for at least two decades. And European scientists released a report in June called, “Roundup and Birth Defects: Is the Public Being Kept in the Dark?”

According to the report, “The public . . . has been kept in the dark by industry and regulators about the ability of glyphosate and Roundup to cause malformation.” The report, which culls peer-reviewed scientific literature, says that Monsanto has known since the 1980s that glyphosate causes malformations in experimental animals at high doses, and that the industry has known since 1993 that these effects could occur at lower doses.

Monsanto did not return call for comment.

The EPA has maintained that the chemical poses little risk to the health of humans, plants and animals. (pdf)

Mainland Cities Curb Use

Representatives of the public parks departments in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland said that they used weed killers that contained glyphosate, but sparingly.

In San Francisco, the use of glyphosate-based weed killers had declined 83 percent from 1996 to 2007, according to a report from the city’s Department of the Environment.

In Portland, most of the weed control in the city’s neighborhood parks is managed without pesticides, such as mulching, or consistent mowing, according to John Reed, a department coordinator at the city’s parks and recreation department. Portland’s parks department also never sprays herbicides on park turf and notifies residents prior to spraying, which is usually twice a year, he said.

In Seattle, the Department of Parks and Recreation has maintained 14 pesticide-free parks, according to Barbara DeCaro, who coordinates the pest management program.

While the cities try to limit the use of pesticides, Reed said that “sometimes it’s the only way.”

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