Little League mom leads charge to wipe out pesticides on ball fields nationwide

Kim Konte’s two sons made their Little League All-Star teams, but the only way she’d let them play summer travel ball would be with a hazmat suit under their uniforms.

Konte, one of the founders of Non Toxic Irvine, which convinced the city to adopt an organic-first policy for landscaping, worries about pesticides used on baseball fields elsewhere. Now her group is working with Irvine to distribute a maintenance guide that she hopes will result in the program getting adopted nationwide.

“Baseball is their life but at the end of the day, it’s not worth the exposure,” said Konte, the daughter of former New York Yankees pitcher Bill Henry. “We want to make sure every baseball player is able to slam in the dirt and roll around in the grass and not be exposed to carcinogenic chemicals.”

In 2016, Irvine became the first Orange County city to adopt a landscaping and pest control policy that allows synthetic pesticides only as a last resort. Since then, San Juan Capistrano has followed suit and other cities have expressed interest.

“We are getting a lot of inquiries from other jurisdictions. It’s beyond just Orange County,” said Manuel Gomez, director of public works. “They’re interested in knowing how it’s working for us, how much of an impact it’s been on the budget and things of that nature.”

Gomez said the city has maintained the baseball fields through manual and mechanical labor without the use of any type of pesticide. He said the maintenance guide will be ready next month. It will provide a detailed summary of athletic field maintenance practices for all sports that can be shared electronically.

Non Toxic Irvine, which refers to the guide as a Baseball Diamond Playbook, plans to distribute the information to youth leagues across the country.

The awareness campaign sounds like a good idea to Brad Gramlich, president of Irvine Pony Baseball. He said until Irvine Non Toxic raised the issue of pesticide usage, he had only considered the appearance of the city’s baseball fields.

“It’s kind of that unseen thing you don’t think about until someone brings it to your attention, to think about what are they treating the grass with and my kid is out there diving for balls?” Gramlich said. “It’s a great addition to safety.”

Pesticides commonly used for weed control on baseball fields include 2,4-D and Roundup.

According to a pesticides fact sheet published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, children are more vulnerable than adults because their nervous, immune, digestive and other systems are still developing and are less capable of excreting pollutants. Also, children breathe in more air than adults, meaning they inhale almost twice as many pollutants.

The EPA notes that children spend more time outdoors on grass, playing fields, and play equipment where pesticides may be present. Long-term exposure may cause birth defects, learning disabilities, cancer, organ damage and asthma.

Bruce Blumberg, a UC Irvine professor of developmental and cell biology and an adviser to Non Toxic Irvine, said children can’t avoid exposure to pesticides when fields, parks or school grounds are sprayed.

“There’s some debate, mostly between the manufacturing companies and the scientific community, about how dangerous they are,” Blumberg said. “There is some degree of risk. I think it is way better not to expose kids to toxic chemicals that may have life-long effects.”

Blumberg said aesthetics and ease of weed control can be concerns when discussing elimination of pesticides.

“Every time I speak with cities or school districts, I say, ‘Why don’t you print a sign that says, ‘Excuse our weeds, we’ve gone non-toxic.’ Weeds never hurt anyone, whereas you can’t say that about the chemicals.”

But in Irvine, fields and parks look as pristine as ever, with a small increase in spending. Weeding by hand and using organic pesticides, which must be applied more frequently, will increase costs by about 5.6 percent in a $21.2 million landscaping budget, according to a city report on implementation of the program.

Councilwoman Christina Shea said she’s proud of what Irvine has done and hopes that the guide will allow other cities to take advantage of the city’s investment.

“We’re really starting a movement, which is fantastic,” Shea said.