UI treats lawns with chemicals, students unaware of health risks

Students at the University of Iowa may not be aware of what is being used to treat the grass around campus, making them oblivious to potential health risks.


Katie Goodale

A sign warning students to stay off the grass sits on the Pentacrest on Sept. 4, 2019. Despite the warning about chemical treatment, some students continue to sit.

Kelsey Harrell, News Reporter

Some students who opt to study or lounge on the green space at the heart of campus may not be aware of the products used to treat the grass.

The University of Iowa recently treated the Pentacrest lawns with fertilizers and herbicides. The landscaping team put up small yellow signs warning students of the risk of chemical exposure. Despite the signs posted, many students still sat in the grass.

The treatment products are the third of four rounds of application to campus grass, UI Landscape Services Assistant Manager Shawn Fitzpatrick said in an email to The Daily Iowan.

Although the treatment is usually finished before the start of the fall semester, he said, it was delayed because of the weather.

Most of the products applied were fertilizers for root development and the above-ground turf grass, Fitzpatrick said. Another product was an herbicide to control weeds such as dandelions and clover, he added.

“We do not do blanket spray applications over all of the campus turf that we are responsible for managing,” Fitzpatrick said. “The applications that we do are a part of our holistic approach to turf management.”

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When the products are applied with students on campus, signs warning against sitting on the grass have a low success rate, said state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, the UI Outreach and Community Education Director for the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research.

“There should be an attempt to not apply pesticides or fertilizers when students are present,” said Bolkcom, D-Iowa City

The use of pesticides on campus is currently widespread. If use was restricted to certain areas of campus that need to be weed-free, he said, the UI would save money and product.

At the beginning of the academic year, the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment and the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination hired a project-lead intern to focus on research surrounding pesticide use on campus.

Graduate student Guadalupe Munoz Rocha is the project-lead intern for the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment and  UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination and aims to discover what chemicals are being used to treat the grass, how often, and in what quantity.

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Munoz Rocha’s goal is to make sure that all pesticide use on campus is accounted for, she said, whether it’s on the main part of campus, around the residence halls, the athletic fields, UI Hospitals & Clinics, or UI tenant properties.

Munoz Rocha hopes to create fact sheets about each chemical, informing students of what they might be coming in contact with and any health risks, she said.

The use of pesticides is something people may not think about, but Munoz Rocha said it’s important to be transparent with students, faculty, and the public about what’s being used.

“There’s a lot of sides of sustainability. It’s not just recycling, and it’s not just [switching to LED lightbulbs]. There’s much more than that,” Munoz Rocha said. “It’s the effect that humans have on the environment and what we put into the environment and how that affects us.”