High Park - Kids, dogs, uphill-downhill frolics. But who's watching for the pesticide warning signs? And why should anyone think there might be any?
Turns out the poisoning of public places isn't over. Shockingly, despite passage of the pesticide-banning bylaw last April, High Park is one of several areas where chemical dousing is still going on.
"The city said that public space should become pesticide-free as soon as possible," says Janet May, coordinator of Pesticide Free Ontario. "Unfortunately, the people in the parks department don't seem to think that applies to High Park."
An exception clause in the bylaw allows pesticide use for infestations or pests "under conditions which involve an immediate or potential risk of substantial loss or damage" to property. In the case of High Park, parks and rec says pesticides are necessary to eradicate the invasive dog-strangling vine threatening the 200-year-old black oak savannah, a canopy of tree cover over a ground layer of grasses and wildflowers.
"I wouldn't call it an exemption," says Monica Campbell of the city's health promotion and environmental protection office, which gives the forestry service the OK. "But there are provisions to use pesticides for situations such as those we find in High Park."
In 2000, parks and rec decided that in order to preserve the trees, it would have to proscribe the burning, planting and cutting of vegetation in the area. Two years ago, the city came up with a more detailed High Park Woodland & Savannah Management Plan that mandates the use of herbicides to get rid of weeds.
In the summer, the city uses the glyphosate Roundup to check the invasive weed. Forestry services has been applying the herbicide for the past three years throughout one-third of the parkland. City workers are instructed to hand-wipe the chemicals rather than spray them, to minimize the health risks to humans and wildlife.
"Assuming the city is following the directions," says Edith Lachapelle of the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), "those pesticides should not pose a health hazard to residents.'
Since October, the city has been applying Garlon 4 in the park to manage the stumps of invasive buckthorn trees and Asiatic bittersweet plants. But in September, the PMRA re-evaluated triclopyr, an active ingredient in Garlon 4.
As part of the PMRA's regulatory actions, it stated that triclopyr should be used only outside of residential areas, which are defined as sites where "bystanders including children may be potentially exposed during or after spraying. This includes around homes, schools and parks.' Campbell says the re-evaluation is still ongoing.
Katrina Miller, a toxics campaigner at the Toronto Environmental Alliance, says that both Garlon 4 and Roundup are toxic to aquatic life. Roundup is particularly dangerous due to its ability to leach through sandy soil into water.
"I don't think the parks department is being very responsible,' says May. "Health Canada feels there are problems with triclopyr, so even though that statement hasn't been put on the labels yet, you'd expect professionals to be aware of this."
But Campbell responds that the city has made significant efforts since the bylaw was adopted to cut down on pesticide use in public areas. "It's a 97 per cent reduction," she says, noting that all the pesticides used in public have been approved by the Ministry of the Environment.
"The city is using (pesticides) for naturalization projects when it doesn't have resources to remove weeds," says Campbell. "There is negligible concern for health because it's not the same as somebody spraying it in their backyard or play area, where children have frequent contact with a pesticide-soaked lawn."
Richard Ubbens of Toronto forestry services says the minimal use of pesticides to protect this savannah is the only method that seems to work so far. He feels that the benefit of preserving an endangered ecosystem is worth the stress of using chemicals.
"In High Park over the past couple of years of strategically getting these invasives under control, we've actually diminished the use of pesticides, which is in keeping with the city's policies," says Ubbens. "It's working, and it's helping us restore this very significant ecological area."
But TEA's Miller thinks its high time the city start looking at alternatives to chemical application in parks, such as physically removing invasives by hand. "They've been using Roundup on dog-strangling vine for four years and it hasn't solved the problem," she says.
"Doing it by hand will take a long time, but you'll have an actual solution rather than this band-aid maintenance with potentially toxic chemicals. If you're trying to naturalize an area yet you're putting in chemicals that can harm wildlife, you've got to wonder what your priorities are."