In an effort to kill vegetation growing near a heliport in Northeast Pasadena, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (DPW) has sprayed a controversial herbicide that is considered a carcinogen by state environmental standards.

According to a local resident, the DPW is spraying Roundup, an easily obtainable herbicide containing glyphosate, a chemical that is either banned or restricted in communities in 13 states, including California, in an area near Eaton Canyon.

“We live near the debris basin just adjacent to the Eaton Canyon Golf Course, and one day I noticed it was turning blue,” said local resident Darian Donner. Donner lives near a hiking trail used by local residents, golfers and dog owners.

“I stopped this truck and I asked them what they were spraying, and they said Roundup,” Donner said.

Tony Bell, communications director for LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, said officials with the county Public Health Department and the Department of Public Works met Tuesday with the county Agricultural Commissioner to evaluate the county’s use of herbicides and pesticides.

“Our office will closely monitor the study and make recommendations based on their findings,” Bell said in an email to the Pasadena Weekly. 

Roundup is the world’s most popular weed killer. In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said the key ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The classification of glyphosate as a possible carcinogen has come under attack since then by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which does not consider the chemical a carcinogen, chemical manufacturing giant Monsanto, makers of Roundup, and others in the agriculture industry.

In a case related to the impact that Roundup use has on food products, in February 2018 a federal judge temporarily ruled against the state’s attempts to require cancer warnings be placed on food products that contain traces of glyphosate.

However, US District Judge William Shubb’s injunction left glyphosate on the list required by the 1986 Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act as a “chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.”

In April, a state appellate court found that the state can require labeling of products containing glyphosate herbicide as toxic under the state drinking water law, also known as Proposition 65. Proposition 65, according to efficientgov.com, a San Francisco-based information collection service that tracks fiscal and operational challenges facing cities and towns, requires notification and labeling of all chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and prohibits their discharge into drinking water.

In August, six months after the federal court ruling, a state civil court jury found that Roundup was responsible for a school groundskeeper’s terminal cancer. Dewayne Johnson was spraying the chemical 20 to 30 times a year while working at a school district near San Francisco. According to CNN, more than 800 other people are suing Monsanto, claiming Roundup gave them cancer.

In an email to Noreen Sullivan, field representative for Councilman Gene Masuda, who represents eastern Pasadena, Hu Yi, Los Angeles County Public Works senior civil engineer, said the spraying is only being done a few times a year to stop vegetation from growing near a heliport in the Sierra Madre Debris Basin.

“The basin is a unique facility because the crest of the hillside serves as a heliport with the capacity to hold two helicopters at a time,” said Yi.

The use of Roundup by the city of Pasadena was stopped in areas where people recreate and congregate in 2017, and discontinued altogether last year, said City Manager Steve Mermell.

All told, there are local and state government glyphosate restrictions or bans in place in 13 states. Other California cities to take action on use of the herbicide include:

Los Angeles, where in 2017 the city Recreation and Parks Department stopped spraying the weed killer within 100 feet of children’s play areas, recreation centers and dog parks; Burbank, which discontinued the use of Roundup in city parks for one year, and the Burbank Unified School District, which stopped using the herbicide due to cancer concerns; Carlsbad, which adopted  a policy that makes organic pesticides the preferred method for killing weeds; neighboring beach city Encinitas, which banned the use of Roundup and other glyphosate-based weed killers in city parks; Irvine, which has stopped spraying Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides; and Thousand Oaks, which has a ban on glyphosate use on public golf courses. Petaluma officials are considering a ban on glyphosate for use in public parks, according to efficientgov.com, and Richmond has banned the use of glyphosate for all weed abatement activities conducted by the city.

Despite all the calls to ban the product, Roundup can be purchased at most local hardware stores.

“It is one of the only heliports of its size in the area and it is frequently used as a filling station for water-dropping helicopters used in aerial firefighting,” Yi explained of the need to clear the heliport area of vegetation.

“This area must remain clear of vegetation and obstructions at all times per Fire Department guidelines,” he continued. “Use of herbicides for vegetation management is a cost-effective means to improve visibility along the public rights-of-way, reduce fire hazards, facilitate infrastructure inspections, prevent rodent infestations and to keep them functioning as designed.”

Although in a phone conversation Yi acknowledged Roundup was being used in the area, and that such spraying was conducted up to three times a year, the email does not mention the herbicide by name. However, it does state that spraying of the herbicide is canceled when the wind exceeds five mph or if there is a forecast of rain within the next 24 hours. According to Donner, spraying was done on Feb. 27, when rain was in the immediate forecast.

The site where the weed killer is used is also supposed to be monitored to ensure members of the public are not in the location of spray prior to, during, and immediately after the application, according to the email.

“When I asked them what they were spraying, I was right in front of them at the gate and no one told me I couldn’t be there,” said Donner.

“We only use herbicides that are approved by both Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the California Environmental Protection Agency,” Yi said in the email. “The herbicides used do not pose a threat to humans, animals, or insects when used according to the product label. Applications of herbicides are not sprayed directly into water and where there is a possibility it could come into contact with water, then we use an herbicide approved for aquatic use.”

Last year, US Rep. Adam Schiff called for a ban of Roundup after it was discovered the weed killer was being sprayed along and in the LA River.  According to a story in the Los Angeles Daily News, Schiff asked Col. Kirk E. Gibbs, district commander of the Los Angeles District US Army Corps of Engineers, to “end its use of products containing glyphosate as part of the (Los Angeles River) vegetation management plan in favor of safe alternatives.”

Pasadena city officials have also fought to stop the use of dangerous chemicals in local communities. In 1990, Pasadena city officials filed a legal brief in support of the lawsuit by Los Angeles, Glendale and Burbank seeking to stop state helicopters from bombarding homes with the pesticide malathion to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly.

For former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian, who helped lead the city’s fight against the spraying of malathion to eradicate crop-destroying fruit flies in early 1990, expressed concern over the county spraying Roundup in Pasadena.

“Portugal and Italy, as well as Vancouver, Canada have banned the use of the chemical in public parks and gardens. My family and I have lived in the immediate neighborhood where LA County has been spraying Roundup. Obviously I am deeply concerned over the potential health risks,” Paparian said.