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Soapbox: Pesticide Action Network UK


Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) strive to eliminate hazardous pesticides, reduce dependence on pesticides and promote ecologically sound alternatives to chemical pest control. In this article Samantha Claydon from PAN UK raises an alarm on the threat of pesticide usage in our towns and cities.

I live in a pesticide-free town.

This means that I’m one of the lucky few hundred thousand people in the UK whose council has made the decision to stop spraying toxic chemicals in our shared green spaces, parks and school playgrounds, on our road verges, paths and pavements and around council houses.

Most people assume that pesticides are just used by farmers to help grow crops, but these chemicals, which include weed killers and insecticides are also part of the arsenal used by our councils to keep our towns and cities weed and pest free. In fact, other than as residues on our food, the most common way for the majority of people in the UK to be exposed to pesticides is through spending time in urban, public areas.

Long-term pesticide exposure has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease; asthma; depression and anxiety; cancer, including leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma; developmental and reproductive issues; diabetes and obesity; thyroid issues; and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

On 10th August this year, there was a landmark ruling by a court in the US. A jury ruled that Monsanto’s Roundup – which contains glyphosate as its key ingredient and is the most widely used pesticide in our towns and cities – was liable for a terminally ill groundskeeper’s cancer and ordered the company to pay $289 million in damages. This was the first case of its kind but there are at least another 5,000 similar cases pending.

Pesticides are also having a devastating effect on our environment. When used on hard surfaces such as pavements and paths they tend to runoff, contaminating watercourses and harming aquatic wildlife in the process. Herbicides (weed killers) are used to turn parks into ‘green deserts’ where only grass grows. They kill all other plants, many of which are relied upon by birds, insects and other wildlife. They can have devastating effects on our pets if they roll or play in the grass or dust that is contaminated. In addition, many of the pesticides used are highly persistent meaning that they stay around in the soil long into the future.

Due to habitat loss and the large quantities of pesticides used in UK agriculture, wildlife is increasingly seeking refuge in our towns and cities. However, the overuse of pesticides is destroying many of the areas where they can forage for food and contaminating the natural resources they depend upon. As a result, the populations of many kinds of wildlife have dwindled in recent years. A 2017 study revealed a 76% decline in flying insects since 1990. We know that pollinators such as bees are particularly struggling.

In fact, we’re surrounded by chemicals in every aspect of our lives. If our councils can avoid using pesticides in our green spaces and shared areas, reducing the number of chemicals to which we’re exposed, shouldn’t they be doing so? At Pesticide Action Network UK we believe this should be a national priority. Many cities around Europe have already made the decision to protect their citizens’ well-being and have replaced their use of pesticides with safe and sustainable alternatives.

Only a handful of towns in the UK have followed suit. These include Lewes, Glastonbury, Wadebridge and the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham in London. “…there is no debate that at Hammersmith & Fulham, the health and well-being of our residents is our priority…” Wesley Harcourt, Hammersmith & Fulham Councillor

However, aside from councils, there are also many others that use pesticides including university campuses, car parks, hospitals, private housing developments, shopping centres and schools. There is no legal requirement for them to let the public know when or where they are being sprayed. In addition, it’s possible for anyone to walk into a supermarket or garden centre and buy pesticides off the shelf. These are then sprayed in gardens, driveways and on allotments, often ignoring the instructions on the label. PAN UK receives many calls from concerned members of the public, with terribly sad stories of pesticide exposure and health problems. Unfortunately, it is a problem that tends to go unseen and unheard, partly due to the fact that the general public is largely ignorant to the issues with pesticides, but also due to the secrecy and cover-up employed by the government and pesticide manufacturers. This is a multi-billion dollar industry after all.

We believe that the government should ban the use of pesticides in public spaces. And also ban the sale of pesticides to the everyday consumer. There is no need for these toxic chemicals as there are plenty of non-chemical alternatives available and lots of towns and cities in the UK, and beyond, are already proving it can be done. As has been shown in other areas such as renewable energy, once the demand is there, more money will be invested in the creation of sustainable alternatives.

Decision-makers such as local councillors need to hear from concerned members of the public like us that we don’t want toxic chemicals in the places where we eat, live and play. Only then will councils move away from using toxic pesticides, driving a much-needed boom in the development of non-chemical alternatives.

The pesticide issue is a global problem. PAN UK works to tackle these problems both nationally and internationally, on the ground and at government level. But banning our unnecessary exposure to these chemicals in an urban setting is an easy win for everyone involved, one which will bring many benefits to our health, our children’s health, and the health of our wildlife.

I feel incredibly lucky to live in a pesticide-free town. It’s high time that the rest of the UK got to join me.

Pesticide Action Network UK is the only charity in the UK focused on tackling the problems caused by pesticides and promoting safe and sustainable alternatives to pesticides in agriculture, urban areas, homes and gardens.


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