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Speaking Out

Noxious Fertilizer and Mulch

Last spring, Facilities used a combination of fertilizer and Ronstar, a "pre-emergence weed killer" used under mulch on campus grounds, resulting in noxious odors. Not only were the outdoors affected, but also the fumes permeated, through the air-vents, every floor in Van Pelt Library, and most likely, other buildings as well. Many of the staff at Van Pelt complained of symptoms resulting from these fumes, and at least one person became ill enough to miss several days of work.  In fact, one of the Facilities gardeners was heard saying: "This stuff is enough to knock your socks off."

Following the application of these products, in April 2003, an e-mail sent to Facilities urging the cessation of use of these noxious materials produced no reply. That letter also suggested considering alternative, more benign products such as those advocated by Mike McGrath of NPR's You Bet Your Garden (

Regrettably, this year, on March 11 and 12, when mulch was used close to the Van Pelt Library, odors once again entered through the air-vents, causing many people to have symptoms and discomfort similar to those experienced last year.  Air-handlers had to be turned off, a little too late, since the odors had already entered the building.

This issue is one that should cause concern campus-wide, as it affects staff, faculty, and students. The only real solution would be to find alternative, more earth-friendly and people-friendly landscaping products for the entire campus.

Are chemically-stimulated green lawns and flower-beds really worth risking, at the very least, discomfort and at worst, a potential health hazard to the campus community?

--Ruth A. Rin, Cataloging Librarian,
Van Pelt Library


In keeping our campus beautiful and attractive for faculty, students, staff and visitors, the University's gardening and landscaping plan includes the application of organic hardwood mulch to aid in soil moisture retention and weed suppression. The flowerbeds fronting Van Pelt Library, as well as the entire College Green, were prepared free of pesticides. However, the organic mulch that is applied does have a strong odor, which is impossible to avoid and can linger temporarily. Understanding that this is odor can be offensive; Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES) staff proactively notified the building administrators at Van Pelt Library several days in advance of gardening with a schedule of landscaping activities to take place this spring.

At times, spot applications of pre-emergent herbicides are made in areas prone to weed growth. FRES collaborates with industrial hygienists from the Office of Environmental Health and Radiation Safety (EHRS) who review the safety of any product used in the gardens.

--Tony Sorrentino, Director, External Relations,
Facilities & Real Estate Services

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. --Eds.




  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 26, March 23, 2004