Council Extends ‘Limited’ Use of Herbicide Linked to Cancer

The City Council has voted unanimously to continue using glyphosate, an herbicide listed as a carcinogen, in some locations around the city — with council members stressing their votes were based on assurances the chemical poses no danger to public health, as it will continue to be used in small amounts and only in areas where people and animals are unlikely to come into contact with it.

The chemical is known commonly by the brand name “Roundup.”

However, there was a subplot to the council’s move: Its 5-0 vote on Dec. 4 came only after a letter from Natural Resources & Environmental Commission member William Kelly was added into the record, assuring the public’s awareness of the potential dangers of glyphosate.

That warning was not part of the council’s original agenda item — which Kelly called “a serious omission.”

Kelly, who was unable to attend the council meeting, wrote members ahead of their vote to say that while a commission review concluded there was “little concern regarding direct public exposure,’’ he still felt it necessary for the council to publicly document, “the fact that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in 2017 listed glyphosate as carcinogen.’’

“This does not necessarily mean that limited use of the product presents an imminent health hazard to the public, but the lack of any mention that the state has officially designated the chemical as a cancer-causing agent is a serious omission,’’ Kelly wrote.

“OEHHA is one of the few so-called ‘authoritative bodies’ in the world that is capable of making epidemiological assessments to classify the health risks presented by chemicals. So what it determines must be at least shared by the staff with you and the community. …

“We live in California and omission of state determinations, particularly when it comes to human health, should not be tolerated.’’

Council Member Marina Khubesrian, in an interview with the Review, said the omission was not an attempt by the council or by city staff to conceal any information from the public, and that when it was pointed out to members by Kelly’s letter, the agenda item was amended to include the warning.

As the Review reported in August, a broad scientific analysis of glyphosate by five U.S. scientists released in February found that people with high exposures to the herbicide have a 41 percent increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Khubesrian, a medical doctor, called the findings “significant,” and said the city was looking into the herbicide’s use.

Shahid Abbas, the city’s parks and public works director, told the Review in August that the city used glyphosate “on a limited scale for weed control maintenance at medians, planters and hardscape cracks in compliance with L.A. County Agricultural Commission (LACAC) guidelines.’’

“Furthermore,’’ he said, “to avoid over sprays and scatter, the city uses a qualified licensed applicator for application of this product.’’

Other cities have taken a harder line against glyphosate, however.

In 2017, Burbank school officials announced they would no longer use the herbicide.

The Burbank City Council followed that move by ending use of the product in city parks and public-gathering areas for one year.

L.A. County, meanwhile, issued a moratorium in March on the application of Roundup, noting a need for more research into potential environmental and health effects. L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose Fifth District includes South Pasadena, recommended the ban.

This week, in interviews with the Review, council members said their votes were based first and foremost on safety assurances — and then on staff reports saying alternative herbicides were not readily available. That would mean the city would incur significant added costs to have contractors remove weeds and other unwanted greenery by hand, they said.

“It’s not that we’re putting cost considerations (ahead of safety) — if I thought there was even a slightly increased risk to the community, I would not even care about the cost,’’ Khubesrian said.

“But I feel very confident there is no risk to the community or the employees.’’

The issue, Khubesrian said, was the cost of labor.

“It was an additional $140-some thousand dollars, basically for manual labor for maintenance of grass and (tending to) weeds that are hard to get to,’’ she said. “If we used another type of herbicide that doesn’t have that (carcinogen) designation, then we’d have to used much higher concentration, and that creates a whole other set of problems.

“The application of it (glyphosate) is minimal, and we’ve asked that the landscape workers use protection and that they are told that there’s a risk to it and to use all possible precautions.’’

Khubesrian said that for glyphosate to be dangerous, “There’s got to be high exposure, in high amounts, before it’s designated as a carcinogen in humans.’’

Further, she said, “It’s not used (in South Pasadena) in parks or in places where people walk or sit — for instance, it’s not used in the area of the Farmer’s Market or in Garfield Park.’’

Still, she added, “I’m not thrilled about it, and I hope there’s a better product that comes on the market.’’

Council Member Diana Mahmud, the new mayor pro tem, echoed Khubesrian’s thoughts.

“It’s my understanding that the locations and instances in which we are using glyphosate are extremely limited — that was one major factor in my consideration,’’ Mahmud said.

“Secondly, there really is, at least according to the staff report, no alternative readily available at this point.

“When we asked our lawn-care contractor what would be the ramifications (of discontinuing use), the number would be really high — I don’t recall the exact number, but it was really high.’’

But, like Khubesrian, Mahmud said that glyphosate is, at best, an imperfect solution to weed control.

“I have stopped using it on my own property except on a very limited basis,’’ Mahmud said. “I’m pulling weeds.’’