North Carolina Botanical Gardens in Chapel Hill. Credit: Andrew Lewis

This story originally published online at UNC Media Hub.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s outdoor sanctuaries are put to good use.  

On any day that even hints at promising weather, UNC-CH’s main quad, Polk Place, is filled with students lounging on the grass; Battle Park teems with hikers exploring its trails; and people roam the Coker Arboretum enjoying its brightly colored flowers.

But in this quest to expose themselves to the benefits of the outdoors, students also may be exposing themselves to something less desirable—harmful chemicals. 

Eighty percent of UNC-CH’s campus is sprayed with Roundup, a popular herbicide used to kill weeds. Its effects are far more vast than those intended, though. In addition to skin and eye irritation, it has been linked to cancer, neurological disorders and other health issues.  

Two UNC-CH students have decided they don’t want to take the risk. Instead, they want to make UNC-CH’s campus herbicide free. 

Negative effects of toxic herbicides 

Emma Spader and Abigail Garcia-Baza are two second-year master’s students in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health who want to spend time outdoors without harmful side effects—and want this courtesy to extend to the whole UNC community and beyond.  

Spader and Garcia-Baza are student fellows for Re:wild Your Campus, an organization that aims to move college campuses in the direction of organic ground maintenance. Spader and Garcia-Baza’s goal at UNC-CH is to work with the groundskeepers to eventually eliminate Roundup and other herbicides from campus. 

Roundup contains the chemical glyphosate, which often causes eye or skin irritation upon contact. Breathing in the chemical can cause irritation in the throat and nose, and swallowing it can lead to burning in the mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, according to research from Oregon State University.  

Multiple scientific studies have also found a link between glyphosate-based herbicides and increased risk of certain cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to MedicalNewsToday. 

These effects have not gone unnoticed. The Lawsuit Information Center reported that as of December 2022, Roundup’s former parent company, Monsanto, had settled nearly 10,000 lawsuits related to the herbicide, paying approximately $11 billion dollars. 

Mackenzie Feldman, project director and co-founder of Re:wild Your Campus, said she was driven to start the organization while a beach volleyball player at the University of California, Berkeley. Every time the ball would roll off the court, the team’s coach would warn them that it was not safe to chase due to herbicides in the surrounding grass.  

After learning of the World Health Organization’s ruling that glyphosate was a likely human carcinogen, Feldman was determined to protect herself and others.  

Since its founding in 2017, the group has student fellows placed at 11 colleges and universities nation-wide.  

At UNC-CH, both Spader and Garcia-Baza have long been involved in environmental activism. They see this fellowship as a way to make an even larger impact on their university—one 729 acres in scope. 

“Obviously, we are not happy about the fact that Roundup is being used on over 80% of our campus, on the walkways, on the greens, on the flower beds, all of that,” Spader said.  

Finding alternative herbicides 

The North Carolina Botanical Garden is the largest portion of outdoor area on UNC-CH’s campus—it takes up 700 of the university’s 729 acres. 

Located at the southern edge of campus, the vast conservation garden aims to “advance a sustainable relationship between people and nature,” according to its website. Unlike the neat and tidy quads that dot the rest of the campus, the botanical garden runs wild with flowers of all colors, interrupted by the dusty walking paths that run throughout.  

Spader and Garcia-Baza reached out to the botanical garden at the beginning of the fall semester to inquire how they could implement alternatives to Roundup. 

North Carolina Botanical Gardens in Chapel Hill. Credit: Andrew Lewis

When the fellows met with Johnny Randall, director of conservation programs at the botanical garden, their preconceived notions of why herbicides are used in UNC-CH’s grounds were challenged. They learned that Randall had some of the same concerns and objectives as they did, but finding solutions was far more difficult. 

“He’s very, very passionate about using biodiversity practices, integrating native plants, and also as much as possible, using toxic free herbicides or toxic free herbicide methods,” Spader said of Randall. 

The reasoning was simple—despite the negative effects of Roundup, Randall had not been able to find an alternative that was more effective, or even as effective at all. 

After extensive research, Spader and Garcia-Baza found Contact Organics, which Spader described as a nontoxic alternative to Roundup and other harmful herbicides.  

The company sent them samples of the product and Randall agreed to pilot an experiment swapping Roundup for Contact Organics to compare the products—a development Spader could only describe as “really, really exciting.” 

Once the experiment is underway, she and Garcia-Baza plan to take pictures over the course of the duration to create a time-lapse video, as a way to track how effective the new, nontoxic herbicide is. 

“We think that’d be a really, really great tool to be able to share with other stakeholders, for example, the grounds team and UNC how they’re financing, ‘we’re going to be using Roundup products,’ because that is really important,” Spader said.  

Despite their success with the botanical garden, other parts of UNC-CH have been more difficult to crack. Garcia-Baza said she has met with UNC-CH groundskeepers and while they have been receptive, they are also hesitant about the proposed changes.  

No concrete plans to move away from herbicides have been made.  

Garcia-Baza said the organization is planning weeding days in collaboration with groundskeepers, where members of UNC-CH’s chapter of Re:wild will help weed, plant and assist with other tasks. 

“That’s also why we’re trying to promote our organization so that we can gain support so that it’s not just us asking the groundskeepers to change certain aspects of their groundskeeping, but also support them in a way,” she said.  

Positive impact on biodiversity 

The group is also encouraging the university to prioritize biodiversity and use native plants throughout the campus.  

How the physical world impacts human health is often on Spader’s mind. To Spader, something as seemingly minuscule as a blade of grass is integral. 

“Herbicide use and toxic herbicide use is really, really ingrained in all of that when it comes to human health, environmental health, even just climate change in general,” she said.  

Sheina Crystal, director of communications and campaigns for Re:wild Your Campus, said having healthy soil is an important part of building climate resilience, which is an area’s ability to respond to hazardous events related to the climate.  

Both Spader and Garcia-Baza see reducing herbicides on UNC-CH’s campus as a way they can personally positively impact the environment—and as a goal they are committing to continuing to chase.  

“Hopefully, we can get everyone on the same page, help everyone find shared interests,” Spader said. “And then as a result, eventually reduce and eliminate the use of herbicides.”

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