Better Killing Through Chemistry

On my way into town the other day, I spotted someone spraying the sidewalk. No, not hosing down the sidewalk – spraying it with pesticide. It appeared the person was trying to kill the grass and other “weeds” that were popping through the cracks in the pavement. I thought about going over and asking why they would be spraying in this season, or at all, but just kept going.

This was not an isolated incident. I remember a few years ago when my son was a student at Lewis & Clark Elementary School, I noticed someone spraying the area around home plate on the adjacent baseball fields (to eliminate small patches of grass). I mentioned this to some people at the school, and they just said I was now in a rural area (having moved from Seattle a few months before), where things like pesticide spraying were part of the mix. I said I was worried about the kids “eating the dirt” as they slid into home, and ingesting some of the pesticides. No problem, they said.

While other cities have banned pesticide use in and around schools, parks and other public places, we go on applying here. And a good portion of pesticide use is to kill “noxious weeds”, another definition of invasive species.

According to Sunny Jones, former coordinator of the Pesticide Use Reporting System (PURS) at the Oregon Department of Agriculture, pesticide use numbers in Oregon are too inaccurate to quote. We do know that metam-sodium and glyphosate are the top two active ingredients in these pesticides. Funding to resume tracking pesticide use in Oregon is probably not forthcoming, according to Jones.

Being Halloween as I write this, it’s appropriate to talk about pesticides – they’re really scary. Rachel Carson gave the public at large the first accounting of the dangers of pesticides in her 1962 book Silent Spring. The evidence of the down side of pesticides has been mounting ever since. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise – pesticides are meant to kill. Unfortunately, they tend to not only kill the species that they are meant to, but often take others as well (sort of like by-catch in the fishing industry). Residues on foods that we and other animals eat can be harmful, especially to the frail and young. But we keep on spraying.

Even if you believe that the “weeds” (plants you don’t like) on your property are deserving of death, there are more environmentally safe ways of doing the dirty deed. The website ( of the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) lists several alternatives to pesticide use in your garden, including flame weeding, goats, mowing, barriers, and even vinegar. A paper published in the Journal of Pesticide Reform (NCAP publication, no longer in print) in 1998 drew some general conclusions from experience with leafy spurge and yellow starthistle, two noxious weeds found throughout the Pacific Northwest. These included: not panicking, identifying and eliminating the causes of weed problems, encouraging desirable vegetation and using site-appropriate techniques. The paper concluded, “Noxious weed control does not have to mean widespread use of toxic chemicals. Alternative techniques can successfully reduce weed populations and encourage vegetation whose presence is desirable, thus reducing or eliminating the need for repeated treatment. Implementing non-chemical strategies and reducing the herbicide dependence of noxious weed programs provides long-term and cost-effective weed management.”

This past summer, I weeded the path and the adjacent soil next to my house, and planted a nice little garden. How did I get the grass out of the cracks? On my hands and knees, using only my gloved fingers and a hori-hori. It took several days of 2-3 hour sessions, but it worked fine, and I got some exercise and sun in the process. And the weeding part didn’t cost me a dime.

By Bob Goldberg

Bob moved to Astoria from Seattle in 2005, on the day Katrina hit New Orleans. He started writing for HIPFiSH in 2007. With a previous career as an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology and a researcher at various companies and national labs, Bob tries to bring his scientific (i.e. objective) background to journalism. Outside the HIPFiSH world, Bob does programming on KMUN radio, sings tenor in the North Coast Chorale, tutors at Clatsop Community College, and helps with websites. He lives in Astoria with his beautiful and wonderful wife, his son and two cats.