Danger on the Green

Yellow warning flags cropped up around campus when the College was spraying 2,4-D in 2013.

Despite Reforms, Vassar’s Pesticide Routine Threatens Students’ Health

High up on the golf course at Vassar College squats a run-down, barn-like structure that
hunkers at the edge of the woods. The building does not appear on any maps of Vassar, and is impossible to see from Walker Field House. Even when walking on the golf course, the building looks as if it was abandoned decades ago. A closer inspection, however, reveals padlocked garages, riding lawnmowers, and, on a sign nailed into wooden siding, the words “DANGER: PESTICIDES.”

The sign at the pesticide shed on Vassar's golf course.

The sign at the pesticide shed on Vassar’s golf course.

This shed is where the Vassar Golf Course stores its chemical wares. To keep its greens
pristine, it sprays such compounds as bifenthrin, iprodione, oryzalin, chlorothalonil, and 2,4-D.
All of the above are either known or suspected human carcinogens. 2,4-D in particular is an
ingredient in Agent Orange, and was banned on Vassar’s campus in 2013.
The campus ban, however, did not apply to the Vassar Golf Course. Though it operates
entirely on College property, the course is run by a third-party business known as RMR Golf,
Inc.

“The golf course is separate from the rest of campus in terms of its pesticide policy,” says
Alistair Hall ’11, Vassar’s Sustainability Coordinator. Hall, an alumnus who runs the Committee
on College Sustainability (CCS), works with the Buildings and Grounds Department (B&G) to
develop lawn-care practices for the campus as a whole. But where the golf course is concerned,
all bets are off. “Vassar doesn’t have operational control over what the golf course does,” he
says.

Students on the golf team use the course regularly, and other students, faculty, staff, and
Poughkeepsie residents walk by the golf course on a daily basis. However, no signs are ever
posted to alert golfers to the chemicals.
“I was never warned about pesticide spraying on the course,” says Ashley Powell ’15,
who joined the golf team for her freshman year.

A list of pesticides sprayed on the golf course, many of which are carcinogenic.

A list of pesticides sprayed on the golf course, many of which are carcinogenic.

Yet the golf course is just one piece of the pesticide regiment at Vassar College. Central
campus, which is comprised of the houses and academic halls, is managed separately from the
athletics fields, though both are maintained by B&G. Together with the golf course, central
campus and the athletics fields represent three independent lawn-care regimes operating on the
campus of Vassar College.

Historically, Vassar’s administration as well as the Board of Trustees have demanded that
the campus’s lawns, fields and turf be immaculate and aesthetically pleasing. Even when moving
toward a policy of integrated pest management (IPM) for several years prior to 2010, Vassar
never set its sights on being a pesticide-free campus. According to a 2008 report by Paladino and
Company, a sustainability consulting firm, Vassar used pesticides “to maintain the standards of
appearance required by the school’s administration and alumni.”

In addition, a 1991 article noted “the high demand for a carefully primped campus” as the
primary driver behind pesticide application. Pinar Batur, Chair of Environmental Studies, claims
this demand holds true today: the Administration and Board of Trustees are concerned first and
foremost with “the cheapest and [most] cost-effective” way to maintain luscious, green lawns.
Prior to 1990, Vassar hired a contractor to manage all of its pesticide-spraying.

According to a B&G employee who worked in grounds in the 1990s, the contractor would come
in for three days at a time and “nuke the place.” Vassar had little control over, or even
knowledge of, the chemicals being applied. And no signs went up to warn the community.
Around 1990, Vassar hired a new Grounds Manager and began to run its own pesticide
program. Even with the College in control, the program was not without controversy: in 1991,
residents of Ferry House found four dead robins in their lawn after a spray. Ferry residents
protested by placing the birds in a box on President Frances Ferguson’s stoop. The College,
however, was not swayed. Jane Berry-Smith, Grounds Manager at the time, issued a statement
saying that she was “certain” that the dead birds “left at the President’s house did not die as a
result of pesticide.”

Pesticides, at least for the time being, were here to stay.

Much of B&G’s current lawn-care practices, which tend toward non-chemical products,
were developed after a campus outcry over 2,4-D in 2013. Throughout that spring, B&G had
been spraying heavily outside dorms and academic buildings, and students reported headaches
and coughing fits. Though yellow flags were placed in sprayed areas warning passersby not to
enter for 24 hours, these areas were impossible to avoid; B&G employee Jason Scism attested
that 2,4-D “has been sprayed everywhere.” When in late April the Vassar Greens discovered the
active compound in the pesticide, they plastered campus with signs calling on students to protest
to the administration.

In an email to then-Vice President of Finance and Administration Betsy Eismeier, whose
office oversees B&G, Joel Orloff ’14 wrote, “I hope I don’t get cancer before I have time to give
lots of money to this college as an alum!”

Other students were more serious. “The toxic smell in the air was overwhelming,” said
Ethan Buckner ’13, “and I’ve [been experiencing] pounding headaches and periodic nausea.”
Students discovered that Vassar’s 2,4-D product had already been banned in Nassau and
Suffolk Counties in New York State due to issues of groundwater pollution. Adam Eichen ’15
noted that House Fellows often bring their small children outside to play, and that children could
be particularly impacted by the chemicals.

Yellow warning flags cropped up around campus when the College was spraying 2,4-D in 2013.

Yellow warning flags cropped up around campus when the College was spraying 2,4-D in 2013.

Faculty also stepped in. “There is in fact quite a lot of anxiety and confusion across
campus, and evidently beyond campus too, about what people are being exposed to,” Mary Ann
Cunningham, Professor of Earth Science and Geography, wrote to Betsy Eismeier in an email
requesting more transparency from B&G about its pesticide routine.

At the time, Vassar’s chemical spraying was nothing new. Since 2010, the College had
been spraying copious amounts of insecticide on its lawns in an effort to kill weeds.
From 2004 to 2010, Vassar had attempted an organic lawn-care management policy,
where no pesticides were sprayed on central campus. According to Hall, though, the decision to
go organic was made “cold-turkey.” “It’s one thing to go organic with a management plan,” Hall
says, “but to stop doing anything is dangerous. The lawns started to get really weedy. There’s a
weaning process you have to undertake to transition a lawn,” he says, and the College didn’t do
it.

In 2010, Kiki Williams, then Vassar’s Grounds Director, claimed that “there are no
organic products strong enough to treat the current infestation of weeds in campus lawns.”
“The College basically announced, ‘We’re going to nuke the lawns,’” recalls Hall.

Vassar claimed that the spraying would only last into September of 2010. But when more
spraying was announced the following year, Chemistry Professor Miriam Rossi began to protest.
“Now this year, we are repeating this pesticide use on campus?” she asked Kiki Williams
over email. “These products are not good for us; they vaporize easily (which is why we smell
them) and it is not good to inhale them.”

Rossi then went to the CCS, which was managed at that time by Jeff Walker, Professor of
Earth Science and Geography. Walker had been in touch with Buildings and Grounds regarding
their pesticide routine. “I am confident that this will be the last spraying,” Walker wrote to Rossi
in 2011.

But B&G sprayed another batch of pesticides in 2012, then again in 2013.

“In the absence of outcry, it would have been very easy for B&G to just keep going,”
says Hall.

Warnings on Vassar's bags of pesticides, with 2,4-D information highlighted.

Warnings on Vassar’s bags of pesticides, with 2,4-D information highlighted.

When students, led by the Greens, began bombarding the Administration with emails that
spring, the response was rapid. Within a week, a Greens representative met privately with Kevin
Mercer, who had replaced Kiki Williams as Grounds manager in February 2013. Mercer had
come from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he had “extensive experience” with
alternative pesticide programs, according to Hall. “He knew there was a better way to manage
Vassar’s lawns,” says Hall, “and expected some level of protest. But he was a bit taken aback by
how active Vassar students can be.”

“Listen, man,” Mercer said to the student in the Greens [Full disclosure: that student is the author of this article] “Can you tell your buddies to
back off? Some of my guys are getting frightened. They’re seeing your anti-pesticide signs get
posted all over their carts. We’re done spraying 2,4-D.”

In a few days, B&G called a town hall meeting where they announced the official
withdrawal of 2,4-D from the College’s pesticide regiment. Professors Miriam Rossi and Janet
Gray (Professor of Psychology) corrected several B&G staff on the toxicology of 2,4-D and
pushed for greater transparency with pesticide application. By the end of the meeting, B&G
announced it would reform its entire pesticide policy over the summer, and cease spraying
chemical pesticides. The Greens lauded the decision.

When students returned in the fall of 2013, they were met with an email from Kevin
Mercer announcing the new lawn management plan. Mercer listed the new weed control
products: Fiesta, an iron-based herbicide, and corn gluten meal. “We are…stopping the use of
synthetic fertilizers [on campus],” he said.

Kevin Mercer displayed this sign at B&G's town hall in spring 2013.

Kevin Mercer displayed this sign at B&G’s town hall in spring 2013.

This same policy has been maintained through the present day, Mercer attests. “My
fertilizers are eco-friendly, and now my fungicides are eco-friendly,” he says. “You could lay out
in the grass and sun yourself; I could spray you and it won’t do a darn thing.”
Where the flowerbeds are concerned, though, Mercer admits he still uses herbicides. “I’m
wanting to kick it over to corn gluten, though,” Mercer said, noting the corn product’s success on
the lawns. “This year, we’re going to do a couple beds with corn gluten, a couple still with [preemergent] herbicide, and see how they do.”

However, Pinar Batur notes that the beds have been sprayed with chemicals for so many
years that they’re still incredibly toxic. “That circular flower garden in front of Main is so
contaminated with pesticides that if I were a bee, I wouldn’t be foraging there,” she said.
And, according to Miriam Rossi, the corn and iron products don’t cut it. “It [is] about
time that they stopped with that nonsense,” she says. Rossi did not state why she opposes the
products.

Rossi, along with several other professors, maintain that accountability and transparency
continue to be issues when dealing with pesticide policy. Hall admitted that the CCS has not
handled pesticide issues since the 2013 student outcry. “The Arboretum Committee is vetting
most pesticide decisions now,” he said, adding that momentum to reform Vassar’s grounds
policy has died down among Vassar’s administration, B&G, and the CCS itself. “There might
still be a hope for organic lawn-care, but there isn’t any action towards it in the moment.”

Despite continual pushback, Mercer and Hall maintain that B&G’s new, naturally-derived
pesticide products are safe and effective. But changing the products used on central
campus only goes so far. None of B&G’s pesticide reforms in the last two years have applied to
the Prentiss Field complex (or to the privately-managed golf course), leaving most sports team
members, as well as residents of Vassar’s townhouses, potentially exposed to synthetic toxins.

Mercer, under his authority as Grounds Manager, had planned to steer the athletics fields
away from synthetic herbicides as well. But administrators intervened, and left control of
Prentiss with B&G Supervisor Anne Beckingham, whose office sits near the fields. Beckingham
is continuing with a synthetic chemical regimen, bucking the trend set for central campus.
When Beckingham goes out to hunt for weeds along Prentiss Field, she often takes a
sprayer full of herbicide. “I go out with a backpack of three gallons and whack ’em by hand,” she
says. She sprays fungicide every three weeks, and combats insects with pesticides on a routine
basis.

“When I first started here [in 2008], I was pretty aggressive with herbicides,” says
Beckingham. Today, however, she has backed off on heavy spraying because the fields and turf
simply don’t contain as many weeds. Her philosophy when applying chemicals to Prentiss is, she
says, that “less is better.”

While Beckingham says she avoids spraying when she knows athletes will be on the
field, Mercer claims her chemicals still present a problem. “They use a lot of fungicides, a lot of
pesticides, a lot of fertilizer that I don’t like,” he says.
The compounds that Beckingham uses on Prentiss include prodiamine, chlorothalonil,
propiconazole, and thiophanate-methyl, all suspected human carcinogens. In addition,
Beckingham uses myclobutanil, a known reproductive and developmental toxin.
Beckingham claims such chemicals shouldn’t concern students. Because the chemicals
“get in the plant fast,” she says, “you don’t have to worry about it.”

This door guards the pesticides used at Vassar's athletics facilities.

This door guards the pesticides used at Vassar’s athletics facilities.

Miriam Rossi thinks otherwise. “Spraying pesticides is a practice that affects all who
come near it since we all have to breathe the air,” she says, adding that pesticides don’t just
disappear after they’re sprayed. “[These chemicals] are likely behind many health issues that our
society faces (like increased cancer rates, increased neurological disorders like Parkinson’s,
etc.).”

Then, there are the workers to worry about. They are the ones “who have to distribute this
poison onto the lawns,” says Rossi. “They are breathing this poison in at a more concentrated
level than we ever are.”

According to B&G employee Jason Scism, workers aren’t necessarily informed of what
they’re applying to the lawns, or what the health hazards might be. Scism reported that “he
wasn’t exactly sure what he was spraying” when the 2,4-D controversy erupted on campus in
2013.

“There’s no reason why athletics couldn’t be managed using the same natural products
we use on campus,” Mercer says, admitting he’s done an about-face himself since he came to
campus and was in charge of applying 2,4-D. “It can be done. They just don’t know how.”

Author’s Note:

I wrote the following article, which details Vassar’s current pesticide practices, for a
journalism course I took with Amitava Kumar in the spring of 2015. The lists of
pesticides sprayed on the golf course and athletics fields were obtained from internal
Buildings and Grounds (B&G) documents as well as materials posted by RMR Golf, Inc.
As a general note, “pesticides” is a blanket term that applies to all lawn-care chemicals:
not just chemicals that target “pests,” but herbicides and fungicides as well.

1 Comment

  • Questiln says:

    Good article. It would be nice to know if there’s any real evidence that the chemicals in these synthetic pesticides actually increase cancer rates, i.e. contain dangerous levels of carcinogens. Practically everything contains carcinogens, after all. The speculation of one ES professor that they lead to higher cancer rates is, frankly, meaningless to me.

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