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P-T School Board keeps open mind about use of herbicides for weed control

Some parents and community members on Thursday continued their campaign to convince the Phoenix-Talent School Board to stop the routine use of herbicides at schools in the district of about 2,600 students.

School board members said they remain open-minded to possible alternatives to chemical treatment of weeds but to date have not seen a nonchemical approach that is affordable and can satisfactorily control weeds — particularly invasive plants such as star thistle and puncture vine.

In their second appearance before the board in the past two weeks, Jennifer Fletcher, mother of a Talent Elementary second-grader, and other community members asked the board to adopt a weed control plan that favors prevention and nonchemical treatments.

Modeled after policies in Eugene and Portland schools, their proposed plan would not rule out the use of herbicides but would restrict them to use as a last resort and reduce the amount sprayed.

"I think this is a wonderful goal," said Fletcher. "It shows tolerance for both sides. It's both cost-effective and highly reduces the use of pesticides for people who don't want their children exposed to them."

Phoenix-Talent contracts with the Jackson County Roads and Parks Department to routinely spray herbicides about three times a year at schools and up to eight times at athletic fields when there is a puncture vine infestations.

School district officials said they cannot afford to pay for the labor that would be involved in manual weed removal and other nonchemical means, which are largely ineffective when it comes to aggressive weeds. Manual weed removal typically costs at least four times as much as spraying herbicides, said Frank Baratta, county vegetation manager.

"I applaud their effort to see our chemical footprint reduced, but we have to be financially realistic," said School Board Member Laura Lotspeich. "We are not ruling anything out, but we need more solid information on a successful (nonchemical weed control) plan before we jump on the bandwagon."

Eugene School District, which has one of the most stringent policies on pesticide use, has not been able to meet some constituents' expectations for the appearance of school grounds and athletic fields.

In some cases, renegade volunteers treated Eugene athletic fields with chemicals without the school district's permission.

The same dilemma faces Phoenix-Talent.

While some parents oppose the use of herbicides, others have criticized the district for not applying the chemicals often enough especially at athletic fields, said Phoenix-Talent schools Superintendent Ben Bergreen.

Jackson County routinely uses Roundup PRO, a glyphosate product, around Phoenix-Talent schools and will use diuron and dichlobenil when needed, Baratta said.

The herbicides used in Phoenix-Talent are safe if applied properly according to label instructions and regulations, Baratta said. The products are used in diluted concentrations.

Glyphosate is one of the least toxic and most widely used herbicides, yet some studies point to some potential adverse health effects from exposure.

Roundup PRO and diuron are described in safety data sheets as mild eye irritants 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.

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

"If you don't know the health effects of pesticides, isn't it better to err on the side of caution?" Fletcher asks.

Some herbicide opponents have suggested amassing a volunteer force to manually weed Phoenix-Talent school grounds instead of using chemicals.

"The thought of the number of people that would be needed to go out and eradicate weeds at all the schools not once but multiple times during the year is daunting," Lotspeich said. "It's unrealistic to expect volunteers to do it."

Oregon is one of 14 states that do not require posting notice of pesticide applications, has no rules limiting the use of the chemicals at schools nor lacks minimum qualifications for applicators, according to an Oregon State University study last fall. However, most Jackson County school districts, including Phoenix-Talent, do post notice of applications and require a licensed applicator to apply the chemicals.

A state Senate work group was recently formed to examine the use of pesticides in and around schools and to suggest possible legislation for 2009.

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