“I REMEMBER WALKING past a creche and saw that the grass underneath a slide where the children were landing was actually sprayed.”
Seven or eight years ago, James Walsh started to notice weedkiller being used in many public areas in his native Co Cork.
“I noticed it before my son was born but I thought I wouldn’t let my child play there. [Then], I became more and more aware of it. I started noticing it everywhere.”
He realised spraying was taking place along road verges, in playgrounds, footpaths, schools, gyms, parks and along rivers.
“It was sprayed around the playground, along secondary roads,” he told Noteworthy.
One of the issues is that it can take seven days for the grass to change colour after it is sprayed with weedkiller, he said. When road verges are sprayed, “it’s invisible” and there are no warning signs so “you have a huge risk as a child walking to school or just going for a cycle”.
Plant protection products (PPPs) – all collectively referred to as pesticides – include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and biological controls.
Some active ingredients in pesticides are linked to health risks, including glyphosate – the controversial chemical found in popular weedkiller Roundup – which the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), determined is “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
Walsh wanted to do something about it, so, in 2020, he started a petition to ban herbicides in public areas. He travelled across Ireland and gathered over 5,000 signatures. In May this year, the petition was considered by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Petitions.
At the hearing, a large proportion of the debate was dedicated to pesticide use by local authorities with Walsh telling the Committee that in order to comply with Irish law, “pesticides should not be used in areas used by the general public” without “documented evidence to state why an alternative would not work”.
“Alternatives must be prioritised,” Walsh stated. Our findings show this is not the case.
As part of our IN THE WEEDS series on pesticide use by public authorities, Noteworthy conducted interviews with campaigners, scientists, policy experts and community groups, as well as over 60 Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) requests and dozens of press requests. Today, we focus on councils and reveal:
- At least 28 out of Ireland’s 31 local authorities are still using chemical herbicide, of which at least 19 are using glyphosate-based weedkillers as of this year
- The amount spent by local authorities on pesticides is highly variable, between less than €1,000 to about €300,000 a year
- Most councils are considering or using some alternative to chemical weedkillers in public areas
- Data on pesticide use is gathered inconsistently between local authorities, with some councils not keeping records required by the EU’s Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive
- Community groups, scientists and individuals are “very concerned” about the use of chemical weedkiller in public areas such as schools and playgrounds and are calling for a ban on its use
Part one of this series reveals thousands of litres of pesticides are being used on Irish roads and forests each year. Part two shows that government inspections found issues in how nine out of 10 vendors handled pesticides.
Also, have a listen to The Explainer x Noteworthy podcast where reporter Anthea Lacchia and campaigner James Walsh talk to Susan Daly about this investigation:
Hundreds of thousands spent on pesticides each year
Over the past number of months – through AIE and press requests – we gathered information from local authorities on pesticide use. We can reveal that at least 28 local authorities are still using chemical-based herbicide.
All but one council supplied this information to us, with Kerry County Council not responding in time for publication – despite multiple reminders – and Westmeath issuing a partial reply.
Roundup is still used by most local authorities, with records showing the last known year glyphosate-based herbicides were purchased or used was 2022 for 19 councils, 2021 for 5 councils, and 2020 for one.
Glyphosate – a weed-killing chemical found in herbicides such as Roundup – is “probably carcinogenic to humans”, with its manufacturer Bayer recently settling a wave of lawsuits which linked years of its use to non-Hodgkin lymphoma - a type of cancer that develops in the lymphatic system.
The chemical will kill most plants as it inhibits their growth. It was developed by Monsanto – acquired by German chemical company Bayer in 2018 – and has been used since the 1970s.
Despite these health concerns, glyphosate-containing herbicides are readily available in Irish hardware stores from brands such as Roundup, Weedol, Doff and Resolva.
Generally, council spend on pesticides is in the order of €5,000 to €20,000 a year, but the estimated amount spent per year is varied, with Cavan County Council spending less than €1,000 per year and Cork City Council spending over €100,000 per year (including on glyphosate-free herbicide).
South Dublin County Council was the biggest spender, with their pesticide bill at least €1.6 million from 2017 to 2022 – including in the region of €322,000 in 2020 and €243,000 in 2021. This included contractor spend – under a road sweeping contract – and council spend.
Waterford County Council spent about €430,000 across the same period – almost €80,000 on average per year, with Wicklow spending around €126,000 – around €23,000 annually, not including a herbicide-free weed-killing machine which cost over €26,000.
While most councils sent us some form of data on usage of pesticides, this was not collated in a uniform or centralised way, with some districts not holding any records and others holding partial information.
Some councils returned pesticide application sheets, while others returned summary statistics on usage, with others holding no records at all. For many councils, pesticide usage data is recorded on paper-based record sheets, making data difficult to collate.
The most commonly used pesticides by local authorities are herbicides or weedkillers.
Typical reasons for spraying, mentioned in pesticide record sheets, included removing trip hazards from footpaths, removing weeds around site infrastructure and from road junctions as well as controlling invasive species such as Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam, giant hogweed and giant rhubarb (Gunnera).
Japanese knotweed is “an increasing problem on public property and other open spaces”, a spokesperson for West Clare’s Municipal District (MD) told Noteworthy, adding that, mainly due to funding, they do not have an eradication programme in place but “a national response is required”.
Alternatives to weedkiller being used or trialled include foam or heat-based methods, salt and vinegar, cutting hedges at road verges, mechanical brushes and manually removing weeds.
Glyphosate still ‘backbone of weed control’
Most councils are still reliant on glyphosate-based herbicides, but aware of the need to research and trial some form of alternative to chemical herbicides for weed control.
In Clare, a 2020 guidance document notes: “At present glyphosate products form the backbone of the weed control programme of the MD of Ennis. There is no guarantee that glyphosate products will be available into the future, therefore it is vital to research non chemical control alternatives.”
A spokesperson for Ennis MD told Noteworthy that currently they use “mechanical brushing and spot treatment with herbicides following risk assessments” to control weeds. They added that, while they anticipate a “future move to greener alternatives”, these alternatives are “less effective, much more expensive and labour intensive.” Restrictions include investment in specialised equipment and funding, they said.
An internal memo by Ennis MD seen by Noteworthy, dated May 2020, notes: “It is highly unlikely that glyphosate will be available to the amenity sector to the extent it has been, for much longer. Irrespective of how the EU licence renewal develops the fact remains that the public have a reduced tolerance for its use.”
Glyphosate’s use is currently approved in the EU until this December, with a decision on its reapproval expected next July. Recently, the European Commission also announced proposed new regulations which would reduce the use of chemical pesticides overall.
Apart from three councils that did not have any records as evidence that alternative solutions were considered or implemented, all the remaining local authorities were considering and using alternatives.
Since 2020, Louth County Council told us they are using only “organic non-pesticide products”, and at least two councils – Cork City and Dublin City Councils – are only using chemical herbicides to treat invasive species.
A number of other councils – mainly in Dublin – have implemented a full or partial ban of glyphosate-based herbicides, with all having exceptions for the management of invasive species. This includes Dublin City Council who stopped purchasing glyphosate-based herbicides around four years ago.
About the same time Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council started taking a manual approach to weed removal with chemical controls only being used in a “very limited” number of locations, such as Killiney for management of giant hogweed.
South Dublin County Council has introduced a partial ban on glyphosate-based herbicides – banning their use in public parks, playgrounds and public gardens.
Fingal phased out chemical herbicide in public parks and open spaces, but told Noteworthy that “current staff resources will not facilitate additional maintenance visits” that are required to enable the use of alternatives to spraying in its 26 rural graveyards.
Ultimately, as Fingal County Council notes, trials indicate “there is not one single replacement alternative to glyphosate, but instead it will require multiple changes in how we design and maintain the public realm”.
Last year, Kildare County Council stopped using herbicide on lands in their parks department with “occasional deviation on some roundabouts”. The council are also leading a research project looking at assessing alternatives to herbicides.
Some councils told us they are currently preparing pesticides policies. For instance, Carlow County Council is preparing a pesticide reduction strategy; Wicklow has recently adopted a glyphosate policy, and Fingal is preparing a herbicide policy.
However, Walsh is not satisfied that alternatives are being prioritised by public authorities. At the Oireachtas Committee he used examples of around the country of spraying on road verges with “children forced to stand in this pesticide when they were walking”. He told the Committee:
The legislation provides that alternatives have to be prioritised, documented evidence is needed and spraying should not be done in public areas.
‘Probably carcinogenic to humans’
Glyphosate has been the subject of two recent high profile court cases in the US. In 2020, its manufacturer Bayer agreed to settle a wave of lawsuits over the potential carcinogenic effects of the herbicide.
The courts found that years of use of the popular weedkiller had caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma with settlements agreed for more than 100,000 people.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. At the same time, Bayer, the manufacturer of glyphosate, contests IARC’s finding and maintains that its products are safe.
Dr Claire Kilty, Acting Head of Research for the Irish Cancer Society said that discussions around this “are very complex and dependent on circumstances”. Based on the latest evidence from the WHO, she added that “those who only occasionally use products such as Round Up” should not “be overly worried about possible cancer risk”.
However, there is a possible cancer risk for “people who are exposed to large amounts of it for prolonged periods of their lifetime” and to mitigate this, Kilty said that those who use weedkiller regularly should use appropriate protective equipment.
A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found glyphosate in 80% of 2,310 urine samples from adults and children in the US. “Most exposure appears to be via consumption of glyphosate-contaminated food,” professor Phil Landrigan, Director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College told Noteworthy.
As a paediatrician who has long been concerned about the impacts of environmental exposures on children’s health, I am deeply worried about the possible consequences for children’s health of widespread exposure in their food to a probable human carcinogen.
“It’s not just humans we need to protect, it’s all the other species in the environment,” said Elena Zioga, a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin who is researching pesticide contamination in flowers. The PROTECTS project is funded by DAFM and is investigating pesticide effects on the ecosystem, focusing on soils and pollinators.
She checked thousands of flowers for pesticide residues in their nectar and pollen. Her research is still ongoing and soon to be published, but she found contaminations and detected “a lot” of the 11 pesticide compounds she was looking for, she told Noteworthy.
“There isn’t a clear understanding yet of whether glyphosate does affect bees or not and whether there is significant risk there,” said Dr Dara Stanley, lecturer in applied entomology at University College Dublin, who is leading PROTECTS as well as another project examining pesticides and bees.
“The one thing we do know for sure is that it kills plants, and bees need plants to feed on, so it does reduce the flowers that are available for bees,” she said.
In Ireland, there are also over 4,500 signatures across 14 campaigns asking local authorities or retailers to stop using and selling glyphosate. This is in addition to Walsh’s petition seeking to ban chemical herbicide use in public areas.
Use of pesticides in Ireland has remained quite stable from 2012 to 2020. This is based on sales of so-called plant protection products (PPPs) – all collectively referred to as pesticides – which include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and biological controls.
However, these figures relate to pesticides sold for agricultural use and little is known and published about its use outside of agriculture.
Pesticides being used in public areas
When it comes to public areas, the EU Sustainable Use of Pesticide Directive (SUD) states member states should “ensure that the use of pesticides is minimised or prohibited in certain specific areas”, including public parks and gardens, sports and recreation grounds, school grounds and children’s playgrounds as well as protected nature conservation areas.
In Ireland, the law governing sustainable use of pesticides, which enacts the SUD, makes it clear that pesticides should not be applied in “areas used by the general public or vulnerable groups” or environmentally sensitive areas.
This includes public parks, hospitals, public schools, public playgrounds and areas of nature conservation. In these areas, pesticides shouldn’t be used unless a risk assessment shows a pesticide is necessary.
Another requirement is that priority must be given to non-chemical methods. This is referred to as integrated pest management, with those who apply pesticides are required to keep records of this.
A 2019 EU Audit of Ireland, however, found that it was “not verified” that risk assessments were being carried out, meaning that the Irish system cannot ensure herbicides are only used when there is no other viable option available.
Some councils not keeping required records
DAFM’s Pesticide Controls Division sent all local authorities guidance last year and again this year to ensure compliance with the SUD. This sets out requirements and mentions that “risk assessment records may be requested during DAFM inspections”.
It states that local authorities must keep pesticide application records of all sprays and maintain integrated pest management (IPM) records, which they must be able to produce during DAFM inspections.
Despite these requirements, some councils are not keeping all the records required, with our investigation finding that six councils did not have any pesticide application records.
This includes Offaly County Council who also had no IPM records. A spokesperson noted these elements were “under review”.
Some council sections told us they were in the process of developing “formalised recording protocols”, such as Monaghan’s Municipal District (MD). Others, including Ballybay/Clones MD in Monaghan and Roscommon County Council, mentioned lack of “resources” when it comes to keeping records.
Wicklow and Cavan County Council did not have records of risk assessments or IPM records. When it comes to IPM records, Cavan told us they are in the process of adopting a “new system”, following guidance from DAFM. A Wicklow County Council spokesperson told Noteworthy:
Until recently, there was no formal structure in place for record keeping for pesticide application and nor was there an obligation for such record keeping.
They added that the council’s recently adopted glyphosate policy addresses such record keeping and it previously used financial records “to identify the quantities of products”.
We also asked whether council staff or contractors were trained in safe use of pesticides, and every local authority confirmed some form of training had taken place.
A 2018 inspection by DAFM of Portlaoise Municipal District found that good practice was being followed, but also noted for “operators to start keeping records on dedicated record sheets”. A separate inspection of the Graiguecullen area of Laois County Council in 2018 had a similar finding.
Not all councils keep a record of what and how much pesticide was used by contractors. For example, Kildare County Council told us that the reason no records were available is “all our spraying is done by contract and the information is held by them”.
However, in its guidance letter, DAFM writes that “the use of contractors to conduct the application of PPPs [pesticides] does not waive the LA’s responsibility in terms of compliance with the SUD. If the LA employs a contractor, the LA must only use trained and registered PUs [professional users]. In addition, pesticide application and IPM records must be available for inspection.”
Given this guidance, Noteworthy asked Kildare County Council why records were not available. A spokesperson said that “since its introduction by the Department of Agriculture, Kildare County Council has endeavoured to comply with the requirements set out in the Directive”.
A DAFM spokesperson told Noteworthy that all “professional users are obliged to maintain records of the plant protection products they use for three years” and that these records can be requested by authorised officers to verify compliance with the regulations.
One problem is that legislation and guidance on IPM can often be “vague, allowing public authorities or farmers to move around them,” said Henriette Christensen, senior policy adviser with Pesticides Action Network Europe, a network of NGOs working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound alternatives.
In her experience, definitions of risk assessment and IPM are “never clear”, allowing for loose interpretations and “many gaps”. To solve this, she said that “it’s really, really time to make public areas pesticides free. It’s happening in many countries,” she said.
France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden have adopted national legal provisions to ban pesticide use in public areas such as playgrounds and parks. In France, the ban extends to private gardens.
‘Stop and think’ before you spray
Since local authorities received guidance in 2021, “there have been positive changes”, said Walsh. “A lot of councils have made huge improvements. Cork city announced they would stop using it [chemical-based weedkillers], and other counties are starting to put motions in.”
For example, James Walsh noticed that “driving from Youghal to Middleton, you can see that there’s nothing sprayed. It’s beautiful. The flowers are left to blossom. They are using alternative methods and it’s successful… But they are still spraying other roads in Cork. I can’t see why – there should be a-one-fits-all solution.”
AIE records confirm that along the N25, from Middleton to Youghal, “weed control by pesticides has been discontinued since the end of 2020″.
Cork City Council’s operations division stopped using glyphosate-based weedkiller in 2022, while its parks division uses chemical herbicide, including glyphosate, but only for invasive species treatment. Cork County Council also developed an awareness campaign in 2021, to encourage people to “stop and think” before you spray.
Elsewhere on Irish roads, a Noteworthy reader contacted us with concerns about spraying along roads in Waterford near Annestown, Kilmurrin, Bunmahon, and Ballylaneen, including near a bridge over a tributary of the Mahon River, with potential for contamination.
We asked Waterford County Council about reasons for spraying and the quantities used. A spokesperson said that the council “does undertake some spot treatment and have done at the above locations in 2022 to address vegetation growth along kerbs, footpath edges, warning signs and other street furniture. Herbicides applied by trained personnel are used sparingly and selectively, and are not overused.”
Pesticide usage ‘not collected’ by TidyTowns
In additional to councils, TidyTowns groups were raised by the Joint Oireachtas Committee in May, with the chair – Sinn Féin TD Martin Brown – asking if they were using pesticides, with no answer provided, and Walsh stating that “it would make a significant difference” if the groups “were aware of the legislation”.
Several councils said they were engaging with local TidyTowns committees, with Monaghan noting that these committees have expressed concern with the overuse of pesticides, “however they consider the use of PPPs [pesticides] more effective for their needs than either of the alternatives trialled to date”.
Roscommon County Council told us that “considerable maintenance of open spaces/vegetative areas in County Roscommon is carried out by voluntary groups such as TidyTowns, Cemetery Committee’s and Housing Estate Management Groups”.
Since these are private community-led groups, the council “has no oversight on what volume of PPPs such groups use. However, as a local authority we strongly encourage and advise such groups in the sustainable use of PPPs in their respective environments.”
However, some local authorities are aware of what herbicide is used by TidyTowns, with Tipperary County Council noting that 18 litres of Roundup were applied in Cahir Town over the past three years by TidyTowns “who have a trained user”.
In May, Wicklow County Council noted, in response to a questionnaire from the Public Petition Committee, that their intention was to “write to the National Board of the TidyTowns to ensure that the marking system benefits TidyTowns Committees that use alternatives to chemical herbicides or practise ‘leave as is’ methods”.
We asked TidyTowns whether they had records of pesticide usage and risk assessments, but were told that “the information sought is not collected or collated”.
A handbook on nature and biodiversity for TidyTowns encourages biodiversity-friendly actions, such as implementing the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and reducing mowing, but pesticides are not mentioned.
‘Parents are very concerned’
On the island of Ireland, the Pink Ladies Cancer Support Group, a cross-border group based in Derry and Donegal, has been spreading awareness of the risks posed by pesticides through workshops on environment, health and cancer prevention.
Jacquie Loughrey, the group’s education and prevention officer, became interested in cancer prevention after she was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. She is now in remission but said that her mother passed away from the same cancer.
Loughrey is particularly concerned about pregnant women and children who are “more vulnerable” to pesticide exposure. Children are also “more likely to spend more time in areas that have been treated, for example grassy play areas”, she added.
She hopes to help change people’s perception of “what a weed actually is”, from something “nasty or “to be exterminated”, to something that is needed by bees and butterflies.
I would encourage the authorities to use the precautionary principle and if possible stop using something as dangerous as glyphosate, particularly near children. Parents on the ground are very concerned.
“I am not saying that glyphosate can’t be used when it’s completely necessary, for instance to treat invasive species. But there are alternatives.”
The Pink Ladies adopted a Green Mile in Derry and, supported by Triax Neighbourhood Renewal team – a community environmental group, “made boxes for plants and placed them at the bottom of street signs and lamp posts” to discourage spraying. However, “the message was lost on the agency responsible as they sprayed around the boxes”.
“What it comes back to is that at this moment glyphosate is legal.” She said that “we’re stuck with this problem” until the EU decides about its re-legislation.
Ban on pesticides ‘in sensitive areas’
Earlier this summer, representatives from DAFM told the Joint Committee on Public Petitions that they do about five inspections of local authorities per year, “with 45 inspections over the past ten years”.
They also noted that they “regulate and provide guidance but it is up to local authorities whether they want to use glyphosate” and added that “a number have decided not to”.
About 30 inspections of “non-primary producers” – including local authorities, golf clubs and landscapers – are planned annually, a spokesperson from DAFM told Noteworthy, adding that five inspections of local authorities are due to take place in 2022.
“There are currently no proposals to increase the number of inspections on local authorities,” the spokesperson said.
DAFM told us “information and guidance on compliance” is given through workshops and updates to stakeholders including local authorities, as well as through their website.
In June, the European Commission announced proposals for new regulations that would set EU-level legally binding targets to reduce the use and risk posed by chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030.
It also includes “a ban on all pesticides in sensitive areas”, including public parks or gardens, playgrounds, recreation or sports grounds, public paths as well as protected areas and any ecologically sensitive area to be preserved for threatened pollinators.
“That’s very ambitious. I really hope they will do it,” said Trinity College’s Elena Zioga, who felt “the least we can do” is ban herbicides and other harmful pesticides from public areas. “For the European Commision to say these things it means we are in a very bad spot.”
Research shows that “there are contaminations everywhere and this is very, very alarming. It goes far beyond pollinators”, she added. “We’re speaking about the environment, about the water that we are drinking.”
Walsh enthusiastically welcomed this proposal which he said, if implemented, “means that it’s a worry off people’s minds” making “the place more attractive, more enjoyable and safer”.
“It’s the right thing to do… It would be brilliant for everybody to enjoy the environment a bit more and makes it more beautiful as well.”
Our full IN THE WEEDS investigation is out now. Part one of this series reveals thousands of litres of pesticides are being used on Irish roads and forests each year. Part two shows that government inspections found issues in how nine out of 10 vendors handled pesticides.
This investigation was carried out by Anthea Lacchia. It was proposed and funded by readers of Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from The Journal.