July 23, 2013—The more Mulysa Melco noticed the amount of Round Up, pesticides and herbicides used by the garden center where she worked as a landscape designer, the more worried she became about those pesticide’s health and environmental effects.
She quit her job before becoming pregnant, and when she and her now 19-month old son go for walks in northeast Portland’s Overlook neighborhood, she stops him from picking up white pebble-like pieces of fertilizer.
Now Melco, who is a member of Overlook’s neighborhood association, is spearheading an effort to make her neighborhood Portland’s first pesticide-free neighborhood. “I’m hoping that long term exposure will decrease,” she said. “I hope for healthier people, especially kids. If we can have cleaner water and air and better wildlife and pollinator habitats, those are all goods for us [too].”
In the coming months, Melco and members of the Overlook neighborhood association’s sustainability committee will begin communicating with the neighborhood’s 2,500 households through social media, email and door-to-door house visits. They’ll ask residents to take Metro’s healthy lawn and garden pledge, which is part of a sustainability program providing residents with resources to garden without using pesticides. The neighborhood association is also planning a garden tour of pesticide-free gardens on August 24.
Melco said the association also plans to contact the various industrial businesses on Swan Island, which is part of the Overlook neighborhood to see if those businesses can decrease their chemical use. “We’ve got a lot of industry [in our neighborhood],” Melco said. “There are some geographic things that make us a little more at risk for pesticide exposure.”
The neighborhood association also hopes to eventually work with the Portland Parks and Recreation department to make the five parks in the Overlook neighborhood pesticide free, especially Overlook Park, which is one of the largest parks in north Portland.
Northeast Portland’s Sabin and Concordia neighborhoods are also in the planning stages for making their neighborhoods pesticide free.
There are two ways people are exposed to pesticides: acute poisoning and long-term exposure. Pesticides acutely poison someone when they ingest large quantities of pesticides or their skin is exposed. Long-term exposure, such as breathing air with pesticide particulates in it, is the more common type of exposure that Melco hopes to address.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Oregon State University’s National Pesticide Information Center all recommend that households, particularly ones with children, reduce pesticide use to prevent harmful health effects.
Pesticide exposure can cause a variety of health problems. The EPA classifies a dozen pesticides as carcinogenic, and others can affect the nervous system or the body’s endocrine system by mimicking hormones or be respiratory irritants. Studies examining how farmers that come into contact with insecticides and herbicides used for agricultural purposes have shown increased headaches, fatigue, and insomnia. And pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive functioning, and behavioral problems have been linked to prenatal and early childhood exposure.
Last November, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement acknowledging those exposure effects and stating that children are “uniquely vulnerable” to the toxicity of pesticides.
In the statement, the Academy made numerous recommendations, including urging pediatricians to become familiar with the effects of acute and chronic pesticide exposure and how to treat acute poisoning and long-term exposure in lower doses. The statement also encourages pediatricians to ask parents about how pesticides are used and stored, recommend using less toxic chemicals, and communicate with schools and governments about decreasing pesticide use.
Pesticide use has been in the news since late June, when more than 50,000 bumblebees died in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville; the insecticide Safari was determined to be the cause of the largest documented die-off of bumblebees in the country’s history.
The die-off caused Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) to introduce legislation on July 12, called the Save American Pollinators Act that would suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, the type of pesticide that killed the bees, until the EPA can review the chemicals used in the pesticide.
At the state level, the Oregon Legislature failed to pass a bill, known as the Toxics Disclosure for Healthy Kids Act, that would have required manufacturers of children’s toys to disclose whether the toys contained 19 toxic chemicals, and begin working to replace those chemicals with safer alternatives.
The bill died on the last day of the session and became the victim of end-of-session wrangling, and is the fourth time the Legislature has failed to pass legislation regulating chemicals found in objects used by children. But when a similar bill failed last year, Multnomah County’s board of commissioners reacted by passing a countywide ordinance banning Bisphenol-A (BPA) from children’s products.
Melco thinks statewide legislation regarding pesticide use and regulation is inevitable. “The idea is spreading,” she said. “[When you] get enough people aware when the legislation is coming down the pike, it’s going to be easy to pass it.”