By Gabriel Dunsmith
On Thursday, May 9th, the Vassar Greens scored a huge victory in a joint forum between Vassar’s Buildings and Grounds department (B&G), the Committee on College Sustainability (CCS), and the student body. Responding to tremendous student pressure, B&G agreed to stop applying a noxious pesticide that contains the neurotoxin 2,4-D.
The first few weeks of spring on Vassar’s campus saw a surge in the amount of pesticides sprayed. Whenever pesticides were applied, small yellow flags cropped up all over campus to fence off the areas that had been treated. (The yellow flags were so widespread, however, that they kept few people from these areas.) The smell was nauseating. Meanwhile, faculty children were running around outside and students were trying to take advantage of spring by lounging on the lawns. The entire campus was saturated.
Though yellow flags are a good way to alert people to the presence of pesticides, they do little to stop exposure. Students, faculty and staff received no warning that pesticides would be sprayed, and there was no notification of the hazards such chemicals presented to Vassar’s population. By the time that the yellow flags appear, the pesticides have already been sprayed—and students, children, and pets are already breathing in 2,4-D.
The yellow warning flags cautioned people not to enter treated areas for 24 hours, but when 2,4-D was applied outside residence halls and academic buildings the pesticide became impossible to avoid. After suffering dizziness, headaches and coughing fits, many students became concerned that the pesticides were directly impacting their health.
One morning, upon seeing a fresh crop of yellow flags on lawns early in the week of April 29th, Greens member Gabriel Dunsmith ’15 decided to follow B&G’s golf carts to find out what pesticides they were spraying. Stumbling upon a cart outside the Shakespeare Garden, he found empty bags of ProScape with a 2,4-D warning right on the bag. He snapped several photos and snuck away unseen.
This was the beginning of a massive public pressure campaign that mobilized concerned students, faculty, and activist organizations to get the College to stop applying 2,4-D and recommit to a low-spray policy that would take health concerns as B&G’s utmost lawn care priority. Soon enough, the Greens, working with President of Vassar’s Democracy Matters Adam Eichen ’15, plastered flyers up on bulletin boards in the Deece, Rocky, Main, and most other dorms and academic halls warning of the toxic nature of 2,4-D and calling on students to email administrators with their concerns. 2,4-D, the flyers pointed out, was an ingredient in Agent Orange, and has been linked to brain tumors and birth defects. Moreover, Vassar’s 2,4-D product has been banned in Suffolk and Nassau Counties in New York State.
Soon enough, dozens—if not hundreds—of students were volleying off emails to Vice President for Finance and Administration Betsy Eismeier, who directs B&G, as well as B&G representatives themselves, noting health concerns and asking the College to halt application of the chemical. The Greens, the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC), the Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics (GAAP), and the Environmental Studies Program all conducted email campaigns to raise awareness of the toxicity of the pesticide and to demand that the College stop spraying.
Within a week of this massive student mobilization, Buildings and Grounds agreed to stop spraying 2,4-D.
At the May 9th forum, B&G also committed to more transparency, all-school notifications of pesticide application, and a reevaluation of its pesticide policy to take place over the summer of 2013. Grounds Manager Kevin Mercer also signaled a willingness to work with students to incorporate health concerns into B&G’s lawn care practices. The campaign against 2,4-D, he believes, will be the start of open communications between B&G and the larger Vassar community, including students, faculty and staff. Moving forward, B&G is expected to form closer ties to the CCS, and may hold another forum on lawn care and pesticide use in the fall.
Profs. Janet Grey (PSYC/STS) and Miriam Rossi (CHEM), as well as other faculty, raised concerns about students’ health and brought to light a former commitment on the part of the College to go pesticide-free. Several students raised concerns about the health impact for workers who were spraying the chemical.
The Greens expect a strong relationship with B&G going ahead, and plan on holding B&G and the Administration accountable. As it is, we are incredibly grateful to both B&G and the Administration for their willingness to listen and respond to our demands.
This pushback against Vassar’s pesticide policy, however, was much more than a campaign against 2,4-D. In rallying students together around a common cause, this generation of Vassarites is shaping the College into a safer, healthier place. We could not have succeeded had we not cared for this place in which we not only study, but live. And part of students’ ability to thrive at Vassar is our ability to determine our own future. In stopping 2,4-D from being sprayed, we take command of the College into our own hands.
This is not just a victory for the Greens, but for the entire Vassar community. It shows a collective conscious that is geared towards the wellbeing of others—it is not just students’ or workers’ health that matters, but B&G’s willingness to listen. In the exposure of one problem on Vassar’s campus, people at all tiers of the institution resolved collectively to shape a better future for Vassar.
Indeed, in safeguarding our own health, we prevent 2,4-D from wrecking the health of future generations of Vassarites. B&G’s decision to stop spraying protects the Vassar community now and untold years into the future. And if we can stop one pesticide on Vassar’s campus, we can shape a relationship with the earth that sees the land as something not to be conquered, but to live with. In stopping 2,4-D, we promote more life.
It is a profound victory, to be able to do such a thing. After all, the protection of one small community in upstate New York is the protection of us all.