[Updated] The discovery that a landscaper applied a generic version of the controversial herbicide Roundup, thought by many to cause cancer, at a Caltech housing facility has stirred a backlash of anger and concern, but in a Monday announcement Caltech defended the product and the landscape vendor’s manner of applying it as being legal.
At the same time, Caltech Director of Housing Maria A. Katsas said the Institute will stop using “pesticides” and is committed to any needed clean-up efforts.
“We are … consulting with a toxicologist to determine what clean-up measures would be needed and most effective,” Katsas said in an email to graduate students on Monday afternoon.
“We regret that you were not notified in advance of the use of RangerPro at the Villa student housing complex in the past,” Katsas said.
“Weed management will be done without the use of pesticides from now on,” she said, but went on to say “We will inform students at all residences managed by the Housing Office prior to any future use of pesticides at those properties by Caltech or any of its contractors.”
Last week, Katsas told the students residing at the Caltech housing complex on Villa Street in Pasadena that it had been “brought to our attention that the landscape contractor that Caltech uses was observed spraying the herbicide, Ranger Pro, in the courtyard of the 1001 Villa apartment building.”
The Institute’s subsequent investigation revealed that, on June 6, two ounces of the generic herbicide version of Roundup were applied in courtyard planters and on 20 feet of the perimeter, Katsas reported.
An earlier dowsing of 2.5 ounces was done on April 19.
“We also confirmed that the landscape contractor did not give notice of the spraying activity to Caltech or the residents,” said Katsas.
The herbicide contains glysophate, which the State has deemed to be cancer-causing and, as such, might require notification of its presence and use.
Riley Galton, a doctoral candidate at Caltech, said she witnessed a landscaper spraying fluid from a large tank strapped to his back around the plastic astroturf her child has been playing on for half his life.
“And I was just like, what is that? That doesn’t look good,” she told Pasadena Now. “If it’s anything other than vinegar, I’m really concerned.”
Galton said she called the student housing office and asked that the substance be identified. She was told to submit her query by email and did. She said there was no response for two weeks and that, she said, took the extra effort of engaging administrators beyond the Caltech housing department.
“I’m a molecular biologist,” she explained, “and I was looking into the effects that this stuff has been shown to have on embryos, on cell lines, and then what the actual half-life of it is in soil. In some cases, it can last up to a year. So even if they stopped spraying it, it’s still there. It’s still on the playground.”
Caltech pointed out that its hired contractors are licensed by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR).
“The landscaper vendor has advised us,” Katsas informed Galton, “that its application of RangerPro was done in accordance with use instructions on the product labels, which are regulated and approved by U.S. EPA and/or DPR.”
Galton’s husband Cory Reider said he first heard reports of the activity from neighbors even before his wife eventually witnessed the spraying of weeds sprouting from cracks in the pavement.
Reider said his complaints, and those of others, went unattended until local media contacted Caltech.
Going forward, Reider and Galton plan to prohibit their son from playing in the courtyard space.
“But from what I understand,” he continued, “the risks are kind of long-term and we are worried, because for the first chunk of our son’s life, he’s been crawling around [in the courtyard] and picking up toys and putting them in his mouth and we’re pretty upset.”
If global sales are any measure, the Roundup herbicide is enormously popular among agricultural growers and landscapers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed the substance safe in the way it is used.
But court cases filed by complainants who claim to have been developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or other forms of cancer, have resulted in penalty awards in the tens of millions of dollars against the substance’s purveyor, Bayer-Monsanto.
Thousands of cases are sitting on state and federal dockets today.
Los Angeles County recently banned the use of Roundup weed following stories of its use in Pasadena by Pasadena Now and the Pasadena Weekly, citing a need for more research into its potential health and environmental effects.