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How Should Schools Deal With Weeds?

Q. I'm a parent with children in the Lower Merion School District, which uses Roundup as part of its weed-control program. I was upset to learn this, given the increasing evidence that Roundup may contribute to a host of chronic illnesses. So I and other concerned parents met with the district's IPM coordinator, who asked us to offer alternatives to Roundup. I suggested flame-weeders, and he responded that the district is not allowed to use anything with an open flame. Do you have any other suggestions?"

---Miriam in Narberth, PA

A. Something sounds a little fishy here…like an IPM coordinator who's reportedly asking parents for alternatives that he should be trained to offer.

Now, at its best, IPM—Integrated Pest Management—is a system that controls every type of pest—insects, vermin, weeds—without using anything toxic. But the term has also been terribly misused by people who want to seem progressive but who think of chemical sprays as the first, rather than the last resort. (A fellow gardener once described the attitude of the worst offenders as, "we released a couple of ladybugs and that didn't work, so we soaked everything with Malathion.")

And then there's 'the district is not allowed to use anything with an open flame' thing. (I guess the poor kids in science class don't have Bunsen burners.) This may be a misunderstanding of a rule, an overreaction to something like a restriction on burning trash, or an actual regulation that simply needs to be addressed. But it could also just be stubbornness. Unfortunately, many grounds-keepers have always just sprayed poisons at problems, and it will take two things to change that mindset.

One is training and education; you can't just take away their Roundup and tell them to figure the rest out on their own.

And the second thing? To quote an old joke, 'the light bulb must be willing to change'. You can show the groundskeepers how other methods work till the cows come home, but they have to buy into them for the alternatives to be used successfully.

Anyway, if people are going to insist on a direct approach, there are herbicidal soaps, high-strength vinegars, and broad leaf weed killers whose active ingredients are iron, cedar oil or concentrated essence of orange peels—in addition to the flame weeders that are standard issue in many school districts.

And, of course, intelligent prevention is necessary to keep problems to a minimum to begin with—like proper lawn care to keep turf weeds from appearing in the first place. (That means cutting at the right height for your type of grass and gently feeding the right times of year for your kind of turf—spring and fall for cool-season grasses; summer for warm-season.) So I emailed Miriam back to assure her that non-chemical weed control is pretty easy, explaining that my local township has never sprayed; they control all the roadside weeds and such mechanically. Here's her return email:

"Thanks so much for getting back to me. I should have been more specific: they claim that only Roundup can kill particularly noxious weeds. Do you have any suggestions regarding poison ivy, poison sumac, invasive ground ivy, and phragmites?"

Wait a minute—phragmites?! Isn't that 'The giant reed of the wetlands' we discussed on the show a couple years back?! Apparently this district has bigger problems than herbicides—at least one of their schools must be built on a swamp. (And use of frog and toad-deadly Roundup is federally prohibited in the kind of wet areas where phragmites grows.)

But it's the poison ivy that really got my attention—and the reason I picked this email for this week's feature, as we need to constantly remind people that herbicides may kill the poison ivy plant, but they don't affect the allergenic oil. Spraying herbicides actually makes the plant more dangerous; people think that the dead plant is safe, but it will still give kids a bad poison ivy rash if they rub against it or pull it up.

And they get exposure to an herbicide along with that nasty rash! So with poison ivy you should never spray (or burn; the smoke can be deadly). Just cut to the chase and manually remove the plant while wearing protection. Otherwise, you've got dead, but still dangerous plants around.

And this school district is in the greater Philadelphia area, so even they have a great locally available resource to turn to for advice—one of the nation's leading experts on this weed (and a recent guest on our Public Radio show), Umar Mycka, the renowned "poison ivy horticulturist". He could easily come out with his crew and give them a lesson on safe removal.

And he could do the same for districts in other areas, either via travel or video. All that's required for this type of approach to become the new norm is for parents to get involved—as I did. Years ago, when our kids came home with a notice that said their school grounds were going to sprayed with six different herbicides, I went to see the principal and she had the groundskeepers change tactics.

And I did NOT have to tell them what to use instead. I had them contact our friends at the BIRC—the Bio-Integral Resource Center in Berkeley, California—and request a copy of a very important publication they produced under contract for the EPA: "IPM for Schools; a How-To Manual". It's a three-ring binder with 19 different sections detailing alternative treatments for everything from ants, head lice and spiders to lawn care—and yes, weed control. You can buy a hard copy for 50 bucks or read the entire thing online for free at

Now, I have to add that the manual was originally published in 1997, and there have been giant leaps in safe and sane weed control since then, so districts will want to review all the options that have become available since 1997. (A good IPM coordinator should already be on top of this, via online classes and journals like The IPM Practitioner.) But one thing is certain—there's no need to spray Roundup or other hormonal disruptors around children.

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