Brendan Tait [obscured] demonstrating weed steaming. PHOTO/ SUPPLIED
Wairarapa’s councils are using a weedkiller with the same active ingredient – glyphosate – at the heart of an American multi-million-dollar cancer court case but say they have already taken steps to reduce its use and impact on their respective patches.
A San Francisco jury last week ordered agrochemicals giant Monsanto to pay $435 million to a school groundskeeper who claimed that prolonged exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based product, Roundup, was linked to his diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Now, Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage wants the ubiquitous weedkiller added to a list of hazardous substances in New Zealand.
South Wairarapa District Council amenities manager Helen McNaught said its contractors use glyphosate-based products for routine weed control on roadsides and footpaths as well as in cemeteries, parks and reserves.
However, McNaught said the council had begun to wind back its use of glyphosate years ago.
“In 2015 when the World Health Organisation reclassified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, SWDC started looking for cost-effective alternatives to glyphosate-based products, despite the New Zealand Environment Protection Agency’s decision to continue to allow its use.
“We have kept an eye on developments in alternative weed control methods, and are actively reviewing the cost and contractual implications of some of these, such as steam.”
Carterton District Council infrastructure, services and regulatory manager Dave Gittings said it used glyphosate products, but had also been exploring alternatives for some time.
The council had already switched to a combination herbicide which contained a lower glyphosate component.
The switch made it better for those dousing the weeds, who wore personal protective equipment.
“But if you have to use PPE gear for something, you know that it’s not quite right,” Gittings said.
“So we’re trying to do it better for the environment, just better all round, to try and find alternatives and reduce the use of any sort of nasties.”
Another step taken by the council was even more old-school – pulling out weeds by hand.
Masterton District Council community facilities and activities manager Andrea Jackson, said it used glyphosate-based products for weed control throughout public recreational areas.
“However, we are exploring options with our contractors to switch to sustainable products.
“We will be asking other councils that have made this shift for insights as to how best do this.”
Jackson said any change needed to be implemented gradually.
“This is a challenge faced by many councils across the country and, as such, we will be looking to industry leaders such as the New Zealand Recreation Association to provide leadership and guidance.”
Cancer epidemiologist at the University of Otago Brian Cox said it was important to monitor the poisons debate internationally and at home.
He urged caution before making policy changes.
“A sudden reaction to one case in one US law court that has not yet gone to the appeal court is not an appropriate method of developing health policy in New Zealand.
“However, it is appropriate that New Zealand does keep watch on the overseas evidence about the risk of cancer from glyphosate exposure and assess and balance of evidence of that risk and the views of users, the public and New Zealand industry.”
Steaming is an alternative
Featherston Community Board member Claire Bleakley says the Monsanto case in the US was “ground-breaking,” and it was past time New Zealand took a serious look at its use of glyphosate.
“This case actually shows there are hazards in the use of it.”
Bleakley is also president of lobby group GE-Free NZ.
“We have to address this, we have been fighting for years to get councils not to use it where children play, and where dogs walk.”
One alternative to chemical spraying is using steam to kill weeds.
Brendan Tait is managing director of Wellington-based company EnviroSteam, which offers chemical-free weed control.
His business kills weeds using “saturated steam”.
He said weeds wilted instantly when hit by steam.
“It’s just the same as boiling a pot of water on your stove and dropping your spinach in. It smells like it too.”
He said New Zealand should lead the pack in finding alternatives to poison.
“We’re all about the clean and green – but we’ve also got this old boy mentality of ‘spray it, she’ll be right’.”
Tait said steam killing of weeds was possible at a council level, but it took more commitment.
Four to six weeks after steaming, remaining seeds and taproots would sprout again, “but once you give it a second dose – then a third, its gone, its dead, there’s nothing coming back”.
However, the process was slower than using chemical spray applicators.
“It can take twice as long – because I’m targeting, not blanket spraying.
In terms of protective gear, Tait had no worries of carcinogens when steaming.
He said steam could be applied in shorts and a T-shirt if you wanted to, with leather gloves to guard yourself when handling the hot applicator.
Tait was interested to see where New Zealand’s chemical conversation would lead after the Monsanto case.
“It depends on what you read and by who. Sixty years ago, cigarette smoking wasn’t [considered] bad for your health.”