The authority says it has measures in place to protect workers using the herbicide glyphosate, which gained notoriety around the world earlier this year after its manufacturer was ordered to pay $290m in damages to a man diagnosed with terminal cancer.
A court in San Francisco found that the chemical, sold under the name of Roundup, had caused 46-year-old former groundsman Dewayne Johnson to contract non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, from which he would not recover. Manufacturer Monsanto denied liability in the case and has said that it will appeal the ruling.
Green Party councillor Gina Dowding told a meeting of Lancashire County Council that the authority should adopt “the precautionary principle” and discontinue its use of glyphosate to treat weeds across the region.
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But cabinet member for highways, Keith Iddon, said the council would continue to use the chemical, as it remains licensed by the European Union until 2022. However, the authority will examine the results of a study taking place in the county investigating the most effective way to clear weeds.
“We have suitable and sufficient risk assessments in place and only suitably-equipped and trained officers use herbicides [while] wearing appropriate clothing, goggles, gloves and masks,” County Cllr Iddon said.
“And [where] we outsource some of this work to district councils, we make sure they do the same risk assessments,” he added.
Lancaster City Council is currently working with a researcher at the city’s university to determine whether alternative methods of treating weeds are as effective as chemical spraying. The study is trialling methods including the use of diluted vinegar, hot water, road sweepers - and even manual removal by local volunteers.
Researcher Maya Mahmood says much more is known about tackling weeds in agriculture than at the roadside. "I wanted to use as many different methods as possible so that we could ascertain exactly what elements work and figure out reasons why some methods may not be as effective," Maya said.
Although it is too early to reach any conclusions, early indications from the research suggest that white vinegar and hot water are proving effective.
During the course of the year-long experiment - which will run at half a dozen locations in the city - conventional spraying will continue elsewhere. The county council says that it is awaiting the outcome of the Lancaster study and also “works closely with groups of maintenance customers who wish to explore alternatives.”
But when pressed by County Cllr Dowding to outlaw a chemical which she claimed is “harmful to wildlife, pollinators and the whole ecosystem”, County Cllr Iddon said there would be no immediate change to the council's weed clearing policy.
“It is on our radar and we are doing things about it. I’m happy to look at the evidence presented to me and happy to abide by the EU sanction for another five years.
“And I’ve used it for the last 40 odd years,” County Cllr Iddon added.