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NYC bans pesticides in parks with push from unlikely force: children


By Anne Barnard


Seven years ago, a kindergarten teacher at PS 290 in Manhattan was following her students’ curiosity about the origins of food when she led them in a role play on how toxic pesticides harm people, ecosystems and even — to the 5-year-olds’ horror — turtles like their class pet, Soccer Ball.


But Paula Rogovin has a rule for teaching small children: Whenever you expose them to upsetting problems, remind them that they can look for solutions. So they decided on a goal: to ban pesticides in the city’s parks, playgrounds and open spaces. And they came up with a chant: “Ban toxic pesticides! Use only nature’s pesticides! Pass. A. Law!”


Since then, through a sometimes contentious battle, the maturing students, their younger successors and an expanding circle of grown-up allies have shouted their demand in playground rallies, on the steps of City Hall and in City Council chambers, where Thursday their wish came true.


Lawmakers voted unanimously to make New York the nation’s largest city to ban toxic pesticides from routine use by city agencies and to push its parks to control weeds, insects and vermin with nature-based techniques of organic gardening.


As soon as the law goes into effect — in 30 days or when Mayor Bill de Blasio signs it, whichever comes first — the use of toxins is supposed to cease, with a few narrow exceptions for targeted use on invasive or harmful species. Although nature-based methods are cheaper in the long run, learning to use them takes time and training, potential challenges for a parks department that saw its budget severely cut during the COVID-19 downturn.


Other jurisdictions have taken similar steps. Baltimore banned a narrower list of pesticides last year, and Chicago, through a voluntary program, has stopped using chemical weedkillers in 90% of its parks since 2014. In January, New York state banned the use of toxins by school districts.


In New York City, residents will see far fewer red or yellow signs warning them to keep dogs and children away from recently treated areas in parks, public housing courtyards and other public areas. Even rat poison must now be put in special containers or inaccessible places, and the goal eventually is to control rats in safer ways, like by better securing the garbage they eat.


“I won’t have to worry anymore, if I’m just running around, that there might be pesticides there,” said Jesse Balsam, 12, one of Rogovin’s original activist students. He is now a seventh grader at Robert F. Wagner Middle School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and often plays with his dog, Pepper, in Central Park.


The law’s supporters celebrated Thursday in Stanley Isaacs Playground at the intersection of the Upper East Side and East Harlem. They ripped up a poison warning placard and held up a mural of trees and animals that Rogovin’s students made back in 2014; she had laminated it with tape.


The bill’s passage came on Earth Day amid a flurry of environmental initiatives. But Ben Kallos, the district’s council member, said “a bunch of kindergartners” persuaded him to propose a city ban on pesticides in 2014. “It went nowhere,” he said.


Kallos said he tried everything as climate change pushed environmental issues higher on the agenda. He recalled holding “the best, cutest hearing ever” in 2017. Children mobbed the floor of the council chambers singing “This Land Is Your Land.”


Still, he said, City Hall and the Parks Department were resistant. But as word of the bill spread, public housing residents and environmental groups teamed up with Rogovin’s students and their parents in a widening circle — and eventually signed up enough council sponsors for a veto-proof majority.


Rogovin, 73, stuck with the mission even after she retired in 2018 after 44 years of teaching and as her original kindergarten activists were entering puberty.


Ava Schwartz, 12, said she was surprised at how hard it was to prevail: “What I learned is that if you want to bring change, you have to be really passionate.”


At the rally, they said the bill would remove dangers that have long been invisible, since toxins can spread through the ecosystem and linger. Another activist group mapped the hundreds of places where the chemicals have been used in New York City with the help of data gathered through Freedom of Information Act requests. Pesticides are used in places people might not think of, like on asphalt basketball courts and walkways to stop weeds from sprouting through cracks.


“You put your blanket down — maybe you’re laying with the love of your life,” said Bertha Lewis, president of an advocacy and research group that pushed for the bill. “And while you’re kissing and smooching, you’re getting poison all over you. That’s nasty.”


Her group, The Black Institute, found that toxic pesticides have been used disproportionately in majority-Black neighborhoods in Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn, according to its 2020 report “Poison Parks.” The advocates also found that the parks workers who are most likely to be exposed to toxins are Black and Latino.


City agencies’ use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, has dropped since 2014, when Kallos first introduced a version of the bill. Since then, it has been ruled a carcinogen; and Roundup’s manufacturer, Monsanto, later acquired by Bayer, has been ordered to pay $158 million, in separate lawsuits, to two California cancer patients, a school groundskeeper and a gardener who were sickened by it.


Agencies can seek waivers to use toxins in specific cases, but input is required from the local community board, council member and borough president. Exceptions will include areas on median strips, where using organic products, which require more frequent applications, would more often expose workers to danger from vehicles.


Still, local and national advocacy groups said the New York ban would have a significant impact. By banning a broad range of pesticides, the law effectively mandates that city parks go organic, adopting biological land management long used by organic gardeners and farmers to keep harmful or invasive plants and animals at bay.


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