January 30, 2023

On Monday Sept. 23, Physical Plant sent out an email to campus faculty and staff announcing the “normal applications of herbicide and fertilizer” would take place on Wednesday Sept. 25. But, unlike in past years, the message was not sent to students. Director of Physical Plant Operations, David Nease, stated to the Torch that the oversight was his, but the event brought to light the mixed thoughts towards the herbicide that exist in the campus community.
President Baird Tipson first authorized the use of the herbicide 2, 4-D in 2004, citing reports of “an increasing number of complaints and expressions of concern from prospective students and parents” concerning weeds. The reasoning was that “since the physical appearance of the campus ranks high on the list of reasons prospective students give for their college choice” Tipson “did not feel we could continue our present lack of attention to dandelions and other broad-leaf weeds.” President Tipson’s Cabinet had spent a year evaluating the options and decided to use 2, 4-D based on the realization “that the risks of careful treatment are minimal and that reasonable efforts can address concerns that have been raised.”
It concluded with stating that the “director of physical plant will inform the campus of the exact date well before application begins” and that “notification flags will be also posted.”
Neither of those actions occurred during the Sept. 25 application.
The director indicated in this announcement was John Paulsen, but upon Paulsen’s departure this year, Nease took on the role of sending the notifications. Nease admitted that the lack of notification to students was his mistake: “That was my fault. I just forgot to include students. I fully admit to being new in this position. And I’m very sorry.”

2, 4-D was an ingredient in the Agent Orange chemical weapon used in Viet Nam in the 1960s. It is considered safe to use by both the United States and the European Union. Its use is illegal in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Kuwait and the Canadian provinces of Québec and Ontario. The National Pesticide Information Center explains that there are risks involved: “vomiting, diarrhea, headache, confusion, aggressive or bizarre behavior” are connected to “acute oral exposure.” The United States Department of Labor advises that a “worker who handles 2,4-D should thoroughly wash hands, forearms, and face with soap and water before eating, using tobacco products, using toilet facilities, applying cosmetics, or taking medication.”
Sarah Fortner, assistant professor of of geology and environmental science, explained that there are no real confirmed risks of the herbicide use, but she also said that she wouldn’t use the chemical in her backyard. She pointed out that few studies examine the combination effects of chemicals, and that we live in a region with other pollutants, so it is difficult to determine how that can change the effects of the herbicide.
“There is a lack of studies that link herbicides directly to human health concerns, this is likely why they are widely applied,” said Fortner. “Lab studies on liver tissue suggest that common herbicides disrupt the endocrine system and inflict damage to DNA at high doses.” She continued that “dogs are at risk of developing cancer from lawn herbicide applications, but less is known about what level or timing of exposure results in this.”
Senior Sarah Ziska expressed personal concern that “students were not informed that the area where they go lay in the grass to read, play with their 4Paws dog, and run around naked, is covered with hazardous chemicals. Humans and dogs are not supposed to come in contact with said chemicals, and it is very disappointing that our safety is put at risk just so there are no dandelions around.”
Nease explained the campus’ continued use: “If you want to keep the lawn nice and look pristine for visitors, you need to so something. We have looked at different types of methods and really do the most effective and cost-wise, this seems to be the best route at this time. We bid this out every year and look at organic material. It’s getting better in price, but currently with the institutional budget concerns we try to use the most cost effective way to get as good of a result as we can.”
“I don’t think this is the most sustainable model in terms of the environment, said Ruth Hoff, associate professor of languages,  “I remember before we went towards the herbicide applications, I thought we had a real lush, green lawn, but there were complaints about dandelions. I actually would choose the less chemical route with a few dandelions rather than having to use herbicides just for that.”
Amber Burgett, associate professor of biology, who researches “the impacts of agricultural runoff (pesticides, herbicides) on the community dynamics of freshwater ecosystems” explained that “our proximity to Buck Creek is a bit worrisome because there could be the potential of a large rain event washing excess fertilizer into the creek. However, the dense lawn on campus will absorb the vast majority of fertilizer/herbicide as it seeps into the soil and binds to the roots of the grass. As long as care was taken to avoid getting the fertilizer/herbicide on the streets or sidewalks, the potential contribution of this treatment to runoff into Buck Creek is minimal.”
Fortner emphasized the need for a balance: “I am interested in working with Wittenberg students in class and research projects to implement sustainable practices. We can balance our desire to have a beautiful campus with the health of our campus.”

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