From goats to animal blood to pesticides, Orange County officials use a variety of  methods to maintain landscaping. More cities are moving away from the use of typical pesticide use, but not all are free of complications. 

Synthetic (inorganic) pesticides can be bought and used in the county, including controversial synthetic name brands like Roundup and SpeedZone.

Varying evidence has been found that synthetic pesticides and herbicides can cause health problems in both humans and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Editor’s Note: This story series was produced by Chapman University journalism students working with the VOC Collegiate News Service.

The idea for the series was sparked by the fall oil spill off Orange County’s coast. But it also goes further — examining the seen and unseen pollution across the local environment — in drinking water sources, ocean waters, on land and in the air. We hope with this series to give residents balanced and informative stories that people can use to be empowered in the community. If you have questions, comments and story ideas please contact Sonya Quick, digital editor at Voice of OC and Chapman adjunct professor.

In 2019, Santiago Hills Park in Orange conducted a pesticide-free pilot program following multiple cancer lawsuits against the manufacturer of Roundup, Monsanto Company, Voice of OC previously reported.

Although the article noted a growing concern for cancer-causing effects in glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup), there was also a rise in complaints of weed growth after the pilot program.

Synthetic pesticides are effective at eradicating weeds and pests. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, glyphosate and Speedzone’s active chemical, 2,4-D (dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) both eradicate broadleaf weeds and grasses, like wild violet, clover, spurge, chickweed, poison oak and ivy, and pests such as fire ants and other insects that span across the county. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin and eye damage, reproductive, and developmental effects have been documented from glyphosate exposure, and children can be especially susceptible to harm due to their hand-to-mouth behavior and small size.

Although cities like Irvine have moved away from heavy use of synthetic herbicides, as stated on their website, anyone can still purchase it and use it. Retailers like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart, and Target all sell synthetic herbicides.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has continually stated that glyphosate has “no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label.”

On the other hand, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Possible risks aside, it costs roughly $73 per acre to spray synthetic herbicides, according to Farm Policy News’ 2017 report. But with more lawsuits drumming up concerns amongst the general public, Orange County has begun to experiment with organic alternatives, as previously reported. 

The Slow Switch to Organic 

Organic herbicides are made from chemicals that naturally occur in nature, break down quickly and are low in toxins, according to Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Center.

While herbicides are not free of chemicals, the chemicals are all derived from plant and mineral sources. 

Irvine is one city that uses exclusively organic pesticides, and also uses an Integrated Pest Management Program, which can be found on the City’s website.

For weed abatement, ammoniated soap of fatty acids, peppermint oil, potassium sorbate, sodium chloride is used, and even blood, found in the City’s Integrated Pest Management annual report. 

Dried beef blood and carbon dioxide are used in Irvine to keep the gopher population down, as they both serve as animal repellents, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Thyme oil, rosemary oil, and spinosad (a soil bacteria that is toxic to leafminers, spider mites, mosquitoes, ants, and fruit flies) are used for insects, also found in Irvine’s report.

But organic pesticides, especially acids, can be moderately dangerous to humans. 

Acetic acid can irritate the eyes, mucous membranes, upper respiratory tract, and skin, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Misuse of carbon dioxide can also cause headaches, difficulty breathing, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, coma, and convulsions, also according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Organic pesticides may not be as effective as their synthetic counterparts. Gopher activity in Irvine parks increased from 69 to 94 work requests, while fire ant complaints increased from 49 in 2019 to 69 in 2020, according to their Integrated Pest Management annual report.

Pulling Weeds Out by Hand, or by…Biological Control? 

A few cities in the county have their weeds pulled by hand, like Irvine has stated in their annual report, but this comes at the cost of hiring and paying more workers to pull those weeds, which the City of Orange has stated in their own Integrated Pest Management Guidelines.

Species like common couch, creeping thistle, nut grass, ground ivy and chickweed cannot be controlled with organic herbicide alone and therefore must be dug out of the ground, stated in Irvine’s annual report.

The last option for weed and pest control is through biological control. 

Biological control uses organisms which are referred to as “beneficials”, “natural enemies”, or “biocontrols,” according to University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The most commonly used organisms are predators and parasites. 

In 2020, nearly one million beneficial insects were released in parks around Orange County to combat destructive pests, including tiny wasps that were released to kill citrus tree pests, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Goats are sometimes used to eat invasive plants. Photo Courtesy of Sage Environmental Group.

Irvine uses grazing goats in the Village of Turtle Rock for vegetation management, but are also used as a fire control method, found on Sage Environmental Group’s website who worked with the City on this venture.

Joe Dillman, Irvine’s Public Services Manager, elaborated on the goats’ environmental role. 

“They are a big help to wildfire prevention,” said Dillman. “In addition to the fuel reduction and fire suppression benefits, grazing can also moderate densities of invasive plants. This benefit reduces the invasive plant’s competitive ability within the native plant community.”

The budgeted amount for the goats in 2020 amounted to $81,780 to graze 116 acres ($705 per acre).

There is also a contractor to provide necessary on-call, around-the-clock staffing, according to Dillman. Herding dogs are used to coralle the goats as well as a perimeter fence to keep the grazing within a dedicated area.

“Fuel reduction projects that utilize goats or other types of mechanical equipment have been shown to reduce the fire’s intensity, and improve fire suppression efforts.”

Joe Dillman, Irvine’s Public Services Manager

“The prime time to graze is in the spring (typically February through May). We have tried grazing other times of year, but have found the spring to be most beneficial.”

Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District, an independent special district that provides public health services to all of Orange County, handles pests such as mosquitos, fire ants, and rats.

With mosquitos being one of the most irritating pests to keep away, Heather Hyland, spokesperson for the Orange County Mosquito and Vector District, said a host of approaches are needed to curb the pest problem.

“We use an integrated pest management system,” Hyland said. “It relies on education, source reduction, biological control, and then chemical control, when warranted.”

According to Hyland, the source reduction is the act of removing attractors. 

Stock photo of mosquito.

For mosquitoes, standing water is removed. For rats it would be food sources, or sources of shelter. 

In the cases where standing water cannot be removed, other biological control reinforcements are brought in.

“That would be mosquito fish,” Hyland said. “In the event that we can’t put in mosquito fish because there’s other fish in the water, we move onto chemical control.”

For chemical control, Larvicide is applied as a film on top of the water source. It uses BTI, an organic bacteria that targets the mosquito. Coconut oil is also applied to suffocate them, according to Hyland.

Story written by Zia Zografos. Edited by Cienna Roget.

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