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Weedkiller debate returns

In the 1970s, a group of concerned parents successfully campaigned to stop the use of pesticides at Eugene schools.

What followed were decades of debate over whether the chemicals should be reintroduced, particularly to keep athletic fields smooth and obstacle-free for games.

Some parents celebrated the health benefits of the pesticide-free campuses. Meanwhile, renegade volunteers sometimes sneaked into school athletic fields to spray them with herbicides without the school district's knowledge.

"It's really a balancing act," said Dan Fuehring, Eugene schools facilities safety specialist.

The Phoenix-Talent School District has faced similar pressures. Most recently, a local resident claimed that her 3-year-old daughter and dog had a reaction to chemicals sprayed to kill weeds at Talent Elementary School.

Through a contract with the Phoenix-Talent district, the county sprayed along fence lines, the base of buildings and some parking lot cracks at the Talent Elementary campus Feb. 9 with a mix of three herbicides: Roundup PRO, a glyphosate product; diuron and dichlobenil.

The chemicals the county sprayed are considered safe to humans if applied to plants properly according to label instructions and regulations.

But on Feb. 10, Talent resident Tanya Casey took her daughter and brown Labrador to play in the grass at Talent Elementary for about an hour. Later that day, a rash broke out on her daughter's arm, and her dog became violently ill with itching, swelling and vomiting.

Veterinarian Liana Dallmann of All Creatures Animal Hospital in Eagle Point, who cared for the dog, said she can't be sure what caused it to have the allergic reaction. Exposure to an herbicide or a bee sting are two possibilities, Dallmann said.

Frank Baratta, vegetation manager at Jackson County Roads and Parks, said the herbicides were applied per label instructions and are as "safe as table salt."

Roundup PRO and diuron are described in safety data sheets as a mild eye irritant with mild short-term effects. Dichlobenil is described as a hazardous substance that, with exposure to extremely high concentrations, can cause skin rashes and burns and other complications up to coma and death, in addition to long-term exposure risks.

Baratta says all of the substances used are safe at the diluted concentrations used on the school grounds.

A sign was posted on the fence Feb. 9 and 10 indicating that the parts of the Talent Elementary grounds had been sprayed, but Casey didn't see it.

Casey's experience has helped to galvanize a group of residents who want to banish pesticides from Phoenix-Talent campuses. Casey has set up a meeting today at the Ashland Library to discuss the issue.

"I wish they wouldn't spray," said Gerry Pare, who lives next to Talent Middle School. "I wish they would either weed whack, or just let a few dandelions come in."

Pare worries the spraying will harm the health of her small dog and two children and contaminate groundwater.

Phoenix-Talent schools Superintendent Ben Bergreen said he doesn't foresee discontinuing the use of herbicides, as they are the most cost-effective way to control weeds and are considered safe if used properly.

"We have some parents who don't think we spray enough," Bergreen said.

Glyphosate is one of the least toxic and most widely used herbicides.

However, some studies point to potential adverse health effects from long-term exposure to high doses of the chemicals, particularly diuron, noted Kay Rumsey, of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Diuron is a likely or known carcinogen, while dichlobenil is a possible carcinogen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

It's the dose that makes any substance poisonous, added Donn Todt, Ashland Parks and Recreation horticulturist.

Most school districts, including Medford, Ashland and Phoenix-Talent, don't spray when classes are in session, but all spray at least twice a year in select spots such as fence lines and building bases.

The Ashland School District considered stopping the use of herbicides at campuses but found it couldn't afford to do so. Instead, it passed a policy that limited their use to the least toxic kind.

Manual weed removal is about four times as costly as spraying herbicides, Baratta said.

Under a contract with the school district, Ashland parks staff spray the herbicide glyphosate, following the district's guidelines and posting notices to discourage visitors. Nothing is sprayed within 50 feet of a playground.

"The fact that poison hemlock, which is 540 times more toxic than glyphosate, is on some Ashland school grounds kind of puts these things in perspective," Todt said.

Less than 2 percent of what is sprayed is glyphosate, he said.

Even Eugene has eased its blanket ban on herbicides to permit limited use as a last-resort solution to weeds.

Unlike Jackson County schools, Eugene doesn't spray routinely; only when necessary and only with the approval of each school's principal.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The original version of this story included an incorrect date for the meeting organized by Tanya Casey. This version has been corrected.

Tanya Casey and her daughter Kira, 3, of Talent, make a stop at the Ashland dog park with their dog, Confucius. pennell photo - Bob Pennell