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Campaigner Zaheer Mamon asks why Marvin Rees has not lived up to his promise to review the use of ‘probably carcinogenic’ pesticides in our streets and parks.

Words: Zaheer Mamon
Illustration: Kleiner Shames

cartoon of grey green chemicals...The Cable’s feature on the use of glyphosates on our streets and parks (edition 5) inspired me to set up a petition against this toxic spraying in December 2015.

The ensuing wave of signatures forced ex-mayor George Ferguson’s council to take action, which led to ‘vinegar-gate’ in April 2016. Fleet Street hacks delighted in the idea of Bristol smelling like a fish and chip shop because of a trial of horticultural vinegar as a pesticide in Cotham ward.

The hype didn’t quite mask the real reek, namely that of a trial seemingly set up to fail. As I presented the petition I asked the council for an example of a pesticide-free local authority anywhere in the world successfully using vinegar. I pointed out that viable established techniques include hot water, plant-based foam, steaming, flaming and strimming. No one could answer my question, perhaps because the most basic research into best practice from other towns and cities around the world will show you that vinegar is simply not a credible option.

New mayor Marvin Rees then brought a fresh glimmer of hope, pledging to reduce pesticide use and review the trial to ensure that it was ‘fairly implemented using modern technological solutions’ with a view to launching a city-wide initiative.

Rees has not delivered. There has been no satisfactory review of the trial. When asked for an update in October the council simply responded that that vinegar was being shown to be less effective than glyphosate. Bizarrely, all other non-toxic methods of weed-control have been ruled out because they apparently lead to vehicles burning more fuel, emitting confirmed carcinogens in the air as opposed to the ‘probable’ ones caused by glyphosate use.

cartoon of green chemicals..This is astounding. Even if we ignore the issue of carcinogenicity altogether, there is ample evidence that these chemicals threaten human, animal and soil health for glyphosate-based products to be banned outright as a precaution. Marvin Rees told us he cared deeply about these issues. Towns as nearby as Frome and Glastonbury have taken action to ban the toxic spraying. Bristol’s backwardness on this is embarrassing and incongruent with other current and former European Green Capitals. The key question is: Marvin Rees, why are you not delivering on your pledge to the people of this city?

Last year’s petition helped bring the glyphosate issue to the table and giving the Council a taste of people power. Now as we begin 2017, it is time to put pressure on Marvin Rees to make good his promise to phase out harmful pesticides. You can help put pressure on Marvin Rees by signing the new petition here. In the meantime, residents and local businesses/community organisations can lead by example and pledge their garden as a ‘pesticide-free-zone’ via this initiative setup by the Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance.

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But what about the Bees?!

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  • Eric de Graaf says:

    Glyphosate is the least toxic broad spectrum herbicide. Glyphosate (LD50 = 5.6g/kg) is less toxic than both table salt (LD50 = 3g/kg) and vinegar. And because it works directly on the EPSP synthase enzyme, only a tiny amount is needed. It’s used at a rate of 0.0006 ounces (less than two hundredths of a gramme) per square foot. At those rates it’s non-toxic.

    The IARC classified glyphosate as a ‘probable carcinogen’. It sounds scary, but when you look at what that actually means, it’s quite different to the immediate emotional interpretation. Firstly, it’s a classification of hazard, not risk. If something is classified as carcinogenic, it means that it has a non-zero risk. It doesn’t say how big that risk is. Secondly look up the IARCs classifications and how hundreds of various substances have been classified. Only one substance has ever been classified as ‘probably not carcinogenic to humans.’ Everything else has a non-zero risk.

    Glyphosate is safe. At the doses used on farms and parks (mixed at 45:1 with water), it’s benign. Please take some science classes.

    • Zaheer says:

      Sorry Eric but you have clearly not done your research into the existing research into the health threats of glyphosate weedkillers, and the problems that arise when glyphosates act in combination with other chemicals such as the surfactants founds in RoundUp, for example. There is ample evidence that these chemical cocktails are extremely damaging in practice, even if you ignore the issue of carcinogenicity altogether. This is why so many cities worldwide have acted to ban the spraying of these pesticides in public places as a precaution.

  • matt h says:

    I agree with the person above, seems a strange thing to worry about in the mildly toxic environment of Bristol filled with carcinogenic car fumes…

    • Zaheer says:

      Tell that to residents who’s pets were acutely poisoned by licking plants on streets that had just been sprayed. The practice is different from the theory. You can theorise all day about glyphosate being less toxic than salt, but in practice this is a nonsense, because glyphosate-based herbicides have been shown in the field to be extremely threatening to human, animal and soil health. It is misleading to claim that Roundup is less toxic than salt. This might be true in terms of acute toxicity (it takes less salt to kill a person in one go that it does Roundup) but long-term toxic effects are a different thing. See this article for further background on this including Roundup’s track-record in Argentina where spraying has been linked to increased rates of birth defects and child cancer rates. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/24/roundup-scientists-birth-defects_n_883578.html

      • Matt H says:

        thanks, I’m not decided and i’ll go away and have a read of that link. I can definitely believe its is very toxic!

        I have to admit I have a deep hatred of Monsanto that goes beyond Roundup and do think they are generally dangerous, so I think the cancel shouldn’t use there products.

        Thanks again for the interesting read.

        • Zaheer says:

          I urge you to look at the issues that occur when glyphosate acts in combination with other compounds that are present in pesticide formulae. I also recommend looking at the work of Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance who are documenting acute poisoning cases of household pets. There is also strong research on the effect of Roundup on bee cognition. All the information is out there – the focus on the carcinogenicity must not be over-blow, it is a small fraction of overall concern. Best wishes.

          • Sylvia says:

            I to am going to make further research before following blindly To pressurise a man doing a great deal on his promises.
            Reasonable concerns but how true remains to be discovered!

  • Zaheer says:

    Never follow anything blindly. Marvin Rees made his promises for good reason, and well considered, researched and thought-through promises they certainly were.

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