Almost 20 years ago, the city of Seattle — under pressure from environmental groups and children’s advocates — vowed to reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed on public lands.
Promising to phase out the most hazardous products, the city developed strategies and guidelines that prioritized eco-friendly methods of removing and preventing weeds. The measures showed early signs of success, with a 30 percent reduction in overall pesticide use over three years.
But the lofty plan of a phaseout soon faltered.
Pesticides the city considers among the most hazardous are still a regular part of its anti-weed arsenal, according to a city database obtained by The Seattle Times. Seattle Parks and Recreation sprayed more than 76,000 gallons of products containing those chemicals between 2012 and 2016, mostly to keep Seattle’s four golf courses well-groomed. That’s up from about 64,000 gallons in the five years prior.
And some parks that the city has branded as “pesticide-free” have been treated with pesticides as recently as this spring.
Meanwhile, new research has emerged showing that pesticides commonly sprayed at developed parks and playgrounds across the city may be more dangerous than initially thought. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the popular product Roundup, was flagged as a possible human carcinogen by an international agency in 2015.
Despite policies that encourage the city to consider the developing science, Seattle has done little to use that new research to alter its spraying habits.
In 2016, Parks and Recreation conducted 732 pesticide treatments in parks that were either developed or in active restoration. More than 60 percent of these applications included glyphosate.
A Parks and Recreation official acknowledged that the agency’s pesticide-reduction efforts have not been up to its standards.
“It’s true, we need to get our act back together with this stuff,” said Barbara DeCaro, a senior environmental analyst in the department and the coordinator of Seattle’s integrated pest-management team. “Our committee wants to take another look and make sure the program ends up back on the radar for everybody.”
Slow to update
In 1999, Seattle contracted with the Washington Toxics Coalition — a nonprofit that advocates for the use of safer products, chemicals and practices — to help evaluate and target pesticides for elimination and reduction.
Philip Dickey, then a staff scientist for the coalition, created a tiered system based on a series of assessments from both federal and international regulatory agencies. The city focused on eliminating or phasing out products in the top two tiers.