Walking the University of Connecticut campus this June 2021, I had the startling experience of seeing yellow caution signs posted in front of Mirror and Swan lake. The signs were there to temporarily warn off anyone who was tempted to interact with the water or wildlife while toxic chemical applications dispersed. Herbicides had been applied to the lakes to prevent summer algal blooms, which if unmanaged, wipe out oxygen for all living creatures under the surface of the water. It is a serious problem faced by natural systems and has negative impacts to the appeal and health of the area. There are, of course, many ways to prevent algae blooms, including these chemical applications, the use of fountains, underwater aeration systems and systems-based nutrient management. Is our university using the most environmentally-friendly means to prevent algal blooms?
When the pesticide sign could be legally removed, I took one home to research. I was curious to know how the pesticides would affect natural wildlife, which must continue living in the lakes even if we introduce toxic chemicals into their environment — fish cannot get up and walk away from a poisoned lake. Are the fish, turtles and birds immune to high concentrations of these toxins when humans are not? Can they at least recover without major side effects?
The three listed applicants were Flumioxazin, Imazamox and Copper-TEA. These are herbicides primarily used for inhibiting photosynthesis in algae and controlling submerged plants. After application of these herbicides, studies suggest that water bodies are safe for immediate use with minor restrictions for certain activities like irrigation. Though the consequences for humans are not apparently high, there is a higher cost to wildlife. Studies on Flumioxazin suggest it is slightly to moderately toxic, and moderately to highly toxic for fish and aquatic invertebrates, respectively. Imazamox was rated as practically non-toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, however it was found to negatively impact honey bees as the herbicide disperses. Copper-TEA is toxic to fish where “some species of fish [as well as immature fish] may be killed [or injured] at application rates on this label.” So, the application of herbicides to the lakes may damage fragile members of the lake’s habitat.
There is another pesticide contaminant entering the waters as run-off from UConn’s lawns. Responsible in part for making our lawns so pristine, TruGreen ChemLawn pesticides are surprisingly of great concern to the well-being of our community and surrounding environment. 53% of TruGreen ChemLawn pesticide products include ingredients that are possible carcinogens, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, including chlorophenoxy (“Tri-Power”) whose labels warn of possibly inducing “irreversible eye damage” and “allergic reactions.” All 32 of TruGreen ChemLawn’s pesticides contain ingredients that pose threats to the environment and local wildlife, including but not limited to threats to water supplies, aquatic organisms and non-targeted insects. These lawn pesticides eventually get washed by rain into water sources like the lakes, meaning the quality of the water and habitat for the local ecosystems and surrounding Storrs community is impacted.
The question posed here was whether or not we care for our lakes by a good means for our university environment. UConn is not particularly good or bad on the general social scope of normal environmental treatment — the use of pesticides and herbicides is typically accepted across the country. What we should consider is changing some pesticide and herbicide use when we conclusively know they pose health risks to wildlife and human beings, from being socially ambiguous into something agreed by everyone to be bad and unacceptable.
Given we are a research university, we ought to hold more transparency around our environmental care to encourage and implement the most sustainable, least harmful ways to be both presentable and healthy for members of the UConn community and our environment. Research could investigate the effects of introducing a submerged aeration system into the lakes to prevent algal blooms. Or, efforts could look for an alternative means of nutrient management in the region that will have less of a negative impact on humans and animals. In doing so, we can even positively model the values UConn holds for sustainability.