Environmental Coalition pushes for pesticide-free campus

While Iowa City is no longer using pesticides to kill dandelions in its city parks, the University of Iowa continues to spray pesticides on campus.


Kate Heston

Dandelions are seen on April 21, 2021.

Caitlin Crome, News Reporter

As the weather warms and students lounge on the grassy areas around campus, small signs warning of recent pesticide use can be seen on the Pentacrest lawn. These signs have caused frustration for the Environmental Coalition on campus, which is pushing for more transparency around the University of Iowa’s use of pesticides.

That includes a Hawk Alert to go out after campus is sprayed for pesticides, a centralized website for information on the UI’s pesticide use, and a more robust and publicized study on health effects of fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides used on campus.

A report published in March by the UI Center for Health Effects of Contaminator and the UI Office of Sustainability and the Environment that drew upon 2018 data recommended similar changes. The report gave the UI eight recommendations, including reactivating the UI’s Pesticide Task Force, joining a program to compare pesticide practices with other Big Ten universities, and an alert when pesticides are sprayed that campus could opt out of.

UI Senior Vice President of Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that restricted-use pesticides, which are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as not available for purchase by the general public, are not permitted on the UI campus.

“Facilities Management has a long history of careful planning and proactive measures, developed with consideration for health and safety, that greatly reduce the overall use of product application,” Lehnertz wrote.

He also wrote that landscape, including healthy campus turf, has long been recognized by the UI as providing a significant welcoming atmosphere, supporting recruiting, and facilitating the use of outdoor spaces for a variety of activities during the seasons.

“The majority of UI campus turf is organically maintained through healthy turf practices like mowing, aeration, and dethatching,” he wrote.

The landscape teams will continually review practices and products while balancing the varied needs of the campus, Lehnertz wrote, and will call together a task force to collect and discuss input from various campus groups, as so many have a stake in the appearance and care of the UI campus as well as a strong commitment to sustainable practices.

“Any changes to our current turf management practices or next steps will be made in this shared governance context,” he wrote.

Emily Manders, co-president of the UI Environmental Coalition, said she finds it frustrating that the coalition has been advocating for larger signs and more transparent studies on pesticide use on campus for decades.

“Iowa has one of the worst states with the worst water quality in the United States, and with pesticides it drifts off into the river and we are just making the water quality way worse,” she said.

One insecticide the UI recorded using in 2018 is a neonicotinoid, neonicotinoid imidacloprid, which the European Union put a blanket ban on for harm that they cause to bees, key pollinators, in 2018. It is not on the EPA’s list of restricted-use fertilizers. The UI reported 1.1 pounds were used on campus in 2018, but the report didn’t specify where. Other pesticides the UI uses, such as a fungicide Clorothanlonil and weed control Dicambia are banned in certain other countries or states.

One main component of the Environmental Coalition’s efforts is more transparency about the health effects of pesticides. The March pesticide report collected information on use of pesticides across campus but did not include information on health effects of those pesticides. It did reiterate that pesticides on EPA’s list of restricted-use pesticides were not used on campus.

“A lot of the workers who are applying these pesticides, are they having the proper gear to make sure that they are not exposed or have any long-term effects from these pesticides?” Manders said. “Do these workers know what they are spraying and how it can affect them?”

Manders said she feels the knowledge of pesticides on campus for both students and employees is limited.

The university is legally required to put up a sign that says a certain area has been sprayed. Manders said the signs are small and unevenly distributed amongst the grass, however, and they are often easy to miss.

“When the [University Environmental Coalition] sent out a mass email about pesticides I received an email back about someone who saw a campus tour group sitting on the grass the day of or the day after they sprayed it,” she said.

To promote education surrounding pesticides, Manders said the coalition is asking the university to create a plan that leads to the eventual total ban of pesticides on campus. The organization also hopes to establish a Hawk Alert that notifies students when and what areas are being sprayed.

This is an alert that the University of Northern Iowa has already put into practice.

Since the university released a pesticide report in March, Manders said the Environmental Coalition made an entire social media series about each pesticide being used and what its health impacts are.

“I recommend reading up about pesticides and the possible effects it has on wildlife and human health,” she said, as a way for students to become more involved.

“Our big thing is realizing that not everyone knows that much about pesticides or should be expected to know that much about pesticides, and we just want to break it down and make it more manageable for the average person to know,” Manders said.

The City of Iowa City wrote in a recent press release that the Parks and Recreation department won’t spray pesticides to remove chemicals.

Tyler Baird, superintendent of parks and forestry for the Iowa City Parks and Recreation department, said the city has not actually sprayed to remove dandelions for quite a while for a few reasons.

The city’s policy toward pesticides states that such chemicals are only used when other options have failed, and only to remove noxious weeds — vegetation that poses a safety risk and are invasive species.

“Mechanical techniques (hand weeding, mowing/trimming, over-seeding and mulching) and landscape design techniques (such as prairie-style and new perennial design) are used to reduce the need for vegetation control chemical use,” the website states.

Baird said it limits the amount of pesticides or herbicides that are out there in our parks, creating safer places to play.

Baird said when certain chemicals are sprayed for dandelions, there is a re-entry period where people must stay off the area for a certain amount of time — something he added is problematic with parks, as people are always coming and going.

Dandelions are a large food source for the bee population because there are not a lot of other things blooming this time of year, according to the press release from the city.

“Just in general it is about being good stewards of the land and not spraying for things that are maybe considered a nuisance but are not really an invasive species or something that is going to degrade the habitat of the park,” Baird said.