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Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I worry about urban pesticide use?

Pesticide is a generic term for poisons designed to kill living organisms. Herbicides (weed killers) are the most commonly used type in cities. Insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides and other -cidal substances may be used too. Unfortunately, their impacts spread beyond the plant or animal species they are actually targeted at. Long-term, low-level pesticide exposure is associated with serious human health conditions, including cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders. Pesticides are also linked to devastating impacts on wildlife, including bees, birds and mammals. Worldwide, there are an estimated 20,000 human fatalities due to acute pesticide poisonings per year, mostly among agricultural workers in developing countries. Although the average Bristol citizen is unlikely to ingest or inhale pesticides used for urban weed control, we are not immune to the risks of long-term exposure to pesticides, even in very low doses. Children are particularly vulnerable to these risks.

Why ‘pesticide-safe’ not ‘pesticide-free’?

Although it hasn’t happened in the UK so far, the concept of reducing urban pesticide use is commonplace elsewhere. France, Belgium, Canada and the United States all have substantial ‘pesticide-free’ movements which aspire to ending pesticide use altogether. As Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance we share this goal, but have chosen ‘safe’ to emphasise the health risks that form the crux of our concerns, and to allow for the use of chemical weed control as a last resort.

How has pesticide reduction been achieved in other cities?

Mainly because local communities asked for it. Canada’s experience is typical. In the late 1980s, a doctor based in the town of Hudson, Quebec started a pesticide-free campaign to protect her patients’ health. In 1991, the Hudson local authorities responded with a by-law banning pesticides. Today, nearly 200 Canadian cities (including Toronto and Vancouver) have followed suit, and regulation to reduce urban pesticide use has been enacted at provincial level. The policies vary in the precise chemicals and uses that are prohibited, but were all set in motion by community-level action such as that we are taking in Bristol today.

What are the alternatives to chemical weed control?

Several such treatments are available such as mechanical and hand-weeding, alongside technologies such as flame, foam or hot water-based control.

Who uses pesticides in Bristol?

Bristol is a big city with a lot of weeds. Many different people use pesticides on many different sites, including sports grounds, cemeteries, car parks, industrial sites and private gardens. Public authorities are the biggest users of urban pesticides because of the large land areas they control. Householders and businesses account for a far lower percentage of the urban pesticide load (residential use only accounts for 2.2% of the total chemical applied).

Where and when are pesticides used?

In a typical city, the largest proportion of pesticide is applied to roads, pavements and other hard surfaces. Parks and educational settings are other substantial end user categories. Pesticides are typically sprayed twice a year (at the start and end of the growing season). Glyphosate is the most commonly used pesticide among local authorities, with nearly all of it targeted on ‘broad-spectrum’ weeds including dandelions, bindweed and brambles.

How much pesticide is used in Bristol?

We don’t know. The Council has a regulatory duty to keep records of spray applications precisely because of the risk to human and wildlife health. But it has thus far failed to disclose this information, despite repeated requests from PSBA members. When we hear anything we will let you know.

Why might weed control teams use pesticides instead of non-chemical methods?

Bristol City Council’s existing pest management policy promises to consider non-chemical alternatives where “practicable” and “cost effective”. Fair enough, you might say, and we at PSBA do not disagree. However, we believe there is much room for improvement in the Council’s interpretation of these terms – at the moment there are far too many instances of weed killers being used when there does exist a realistic alternative. If other cities can wean themselves off the habitual use of dangerous pesticides, why not Bristol?

What does a spray operation look like?

Have you ever seen somebody in protective clothing riding a quad bike spraying something onto the street, or spraying flower beds or grass in your local park? If so, chances are they are a spray operative employed by the Council or its contractors to apply glyphosate or other commonly-used pesticides.

How do I find out the spray schedule in my neighbourhood?

Bristol City Council’s stated policy is to “make available full information on the pesticides used…to members of the public”. Spray operatives are required to display clear, dated warning signs in areas scheduled to receive chemical treatment. We are not sure how strictly the Council adheres to this guidance. If you have ever seen a warning sign of this type in Bristol, we’d love to hear from you.

Isn’t this all a big fuss about nothing?

There are many public health issues out there and we all have to pick what battles we fight. We believe that urban pesticide use has travelled ‘under the radar’ in the UK. This needs to change, and the human and wildlife risks of urban pesticide use need to be taken as seriously here as they are in other countries. Since Bristol is a sustainability leader in so many ways, we call upon our home town to make us proud by becoming the first UK city to declare itself ‘pesticide-free’.